Collard Greens And Watermelon Rind Pickle Are A Match Made For The Holidays

I promise, one bite will change your life

Pickled Watermelon Rind
Photo: Caitlin Bensel, Food: Victoria Cox, Props: Kathleen Varner

My dad is 80 years old, but the moment the first frost hits, he turns into a wide-eyed little boy who expects the fridge to be stocked with two things: collard greens and watermelon rind pickle. It wasn’t until I moved to Alabama earlier this year that I discovered that this combination was not a staple in every Southern household, and my dad is still coming to terms with it. 

I first realized that this was not a common practice when I noticed that Southern Living’s watermelon rind pickle recipe was not paired with our collards recipe. When I got up the courage to ask people in the outside world about it, I swear, they looked at me like I had three heads. Two Alabama natives explained to me that they love to eat their collards with chowchow, but they had never heard of it with watermelon rind pickle. When I talked to one of my non-Southern friends about it, she had never even heard of watermelon rind pickle, which made me realize that my favorite forkful with a sliver of ham hock, greens and a piece of crunchy pickle was not enjoyed by all. My mother even admitted that she had never heard of this combination before meeting my dad. 

I decided to approach my dad about this matter, and I asked him flat out: “Have people ever been confused when you tell them that you eat collards and watermelon rind pickle?” His response was, “No, this is the South,” and we couldn’t help but laugh. 

Having grown up in Virginia's hog country, my dad likes to say he has three weaknesses: “Pork, peanuts and ice cream.” He also sleeps with a copy of an Edwards Ham magazine on his bedside table, so if you found yourself doubting his Southerness, you’d better cool it. 

The Origins

My dad doesn’t remember the first time he was served collard greens with watermelon rind pickle because that’s the only way he’s ever eaten them. Collards and pickles of all kinds were a central part of my father’s childhood, and as he's moved away from farm country to Virginia Beach, the combination has become all the more important to his identity. My great-grandmother May would move into my father’s childhood home for two weeks in the summer for canning season. My dad remembers May as “this little, old lady who was 4-foot-11 [and] was just so fat that to use the steering wheel in her car, she had to push her seat back as far as she could.” Helping the family boil, pit and pickle all types of things from pear to watermelon, May managed the whole ordeal and made sure there were plenty of watermelon rind pickles for her collards each winter.

My dad swears that most everyone he grew up with ate collards this way, except for one man he knew who preferred collards sandwiched between two pieces of white bread. He has fond memories of winter dinners with his mentors after a long day of hunting where collards with watermelon rind pickle, popovers and a recently shot bird would be served among many other delicacies. He also recalls going to a baptist church in Whaleyville, Virginia and all types of greens being served with pickle on the side.

How To Serve

Even though you eat the collards and the pickles together, we do not serve them in the same dish, much like how a basket of rolls and a dish of butter are separate. The collards are served in whatever vessel you wish, but my dad insists that the pickles must be served in a cut glass dish with a small fork with sharp prongs made for picking up those pickles. You also serve the pickles with a little bit of your pickling juice so you can pour that goodness over your greens. Growing up, I tended to be too exuberant with my pickle juice pouring, making my whole dinner taste of clove and syrupy goodness. 

In my opinion, the perfect collard to pickle ratio is a scoop of greens with one or two pieces of pickle on top and a drizzle of the pickling liquid. I cut up my greens and pickle into small pieces to ensure there is pickle in every bite.

The Taste

My dad and I agree that there is nothing quite like the taste of collard greens and watermelon rind pickle when combined. The soft leaves of the collards combined with the crispness of the pickle create a unique texture that cannot be replicated. The bitterness of the green and the sweetness of the pickle transform good-old collard greens into something that’s not just good for you but also delicious. Sometimes you get a pickle that is too crispy or over-spiced, but my mom likes to say it just adds hair to your chest. 

Where To Find Watermelon Rind Pickle

At home in Hampton Roads, Virginia, you can find watermelon rind pickle in most grocery stores, even if it tends to be hiding behind the bread-and-butter pickles. In Alabama, I’ve seen watermelon rind pickle at Stone Hollow Farmstead in Pepper Place, but I haven’t started to actively seek them out yet. Watermelon pickles are also plentiful at farm stands and tend to pop up in the most unlikely of places, so just keep an eye out for them.

If you are feeling super adventurous, you can even make your own watermelon rind pickle like my great-grandma May. I, however, have no experience canning, so I cannot really give you any advice on how to do it, except to follow the Southern Living recipe.

Why I’ll Never Eat My Collards Any Other Way

I am my father’s daughter, and as I grow older, I find myself more and more fond of my family’s love of this winter side as well as our history. I love hearing stories about my father growing up in Churchland, Virginia and eating big Southern dinners. His history is rich and he has worked so hard to preserve and to tell me and my brother about it, even when we haven’t wanted to hear it.

Out of all the things my dad grew up eating as a child, I think that collards and watermelon rind pickle is the food combination he has treasured the most. Yes, we have a country ham every Christmas. Yes, my mom and I take turns attempting to replicate the caramel cake he loved growing up. But there is something so special and so natural about eating watermelon rind pickle and collard greens together. It doesn’t feel like this novelty, retro recipe or food combination that gives you chills. It tastes like the South, like home, to me.

So, even after this recent discovery that watermelon rind pickles and collard greens are not a mainstay in every household across the South, I’ll keep a jar of pickles in the pantry and wait impatiently for the first frost.

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