Imagine three couples and a film crew crowded into a garage in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during a March rainstorm. In the garage six Chinese-American cooks are tending four sizzling woks.
The film crew is shooting a segment for “Bizarre Foods America,” the Travel Channel series that features chef and foodie Andrew Zimmern going to exotic places and having the locals cook for him. Stuff like pigeon pie, barbecued armadillo, camel’s ribs. Nothing you’re going to find at the Piggly Wiggly.
For this “Blues Trail” segment, the crew has already eaten barbecue in Memphis; tomorrow they’ll eat hot tamales. Today, on this improbable afternoon, Sally Chow along with two of her brothers and their wives are cooking Chinese, Southern style, in the garage of her brother’s ranch-style home.
The menu includes pigtails and blackeye peas (a Chinese New Year’s dish), oxtail with radish, Chinese spare-ribs barbecued in a homemade charcoal cooker, crawdads Cantonese and Yung’s almost-famous stir-fried collard greens.
One of the cooks, Yung Chow, is focused on her stir-fried collard greens. Yung turned to collards about 25 years ago when she moved to Columbus and couldn’t find gai lon, a Chinese leafy vegetable. In the intervening years she’s perfected the recipe and it appears in at least one cookbook (“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan).
As the cameraman photographed Yung at work on her speciality, her husband, Dean announced, “Two days ago these greens were in the ground in Caledonia, Mississippi.”
The cameraman asked him to repeat that line and Dean complied.
“One more time without looking at the camera.”
Dean said his line again. That’s show business.
How is it a Columbus dentist and his wife happened to be cooking collards for a Travel Channel segment on “bizarre food,” you might ask. Caledonia collards, no less.
Dean’s sister Sally has given cooking demonstrations with John T. Edge’s Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss and is known in food circles. When Sally got the call from the show’s producer, she called in re-enforcements, mainly her brothers Dean and Audric and their wives.
Plans were for each couple to make two dishes for a menu worked out between Sally and the show’s producers. Dean and Yung would do the crawfish and the collards. But where do you find decent collard greens in March?
Dean posed that question to his receptionist Jean Caston — he’d just finished doing some dental work on Barbara Jean Beatty, who was still in the office.
“I know where you can get the best collard greens in Columbus, but I have to call my sister,” Barbara Jean chimed in.
Turns out Beatty’s sister is in a Sunday school class with Joan Mouchett, whose husband, Jackie, is something of a collard specialist.
Jackie grew up in Millport, and though he doesn’t profess to be an expert on the subject, says Alabama people tend to favor turnip greens over collards. Joan, who was raised in the Caledonia area, says she grew up eating collards.
About two years ago, wanting to overcome his collard deficiency, Jackie planted Georgia collards. Not so good. Next he planted Vates. They were better, good enough to give to friends, friends like Barbara Jean’s sister.
“I was tickled when they told me,” Joan said about Yung’s call. “I watch HGTV and the food channels.”
This winter’s crop was particularly sweet. The cold weather makes collards sweeter, Jackie says.
So when the show’s host approached Dean and Yung’s wok, Dean, ever the promoter, said, “These may be the sweetest collard greens you ever tasted.”
Zimmern didn’t hesitate. “They taste like candy,” he announced.
Later in the shoot Zimmern had a producer call Hicks Tamales to see if the hot tamales were ready for the next shoot later that evening.
“They won’t have them until 9 o’clock tomorrow morning and they want $200,” a producer called out.
“Tell ’em we’ll give ’em $300 and be sure to make it good,” Zimmern shouted back.
So, rather than rushing off, the crew stayed for supper.
“He has a saying,” says Dean of Zimmern. “‘If it looks good, eat it. If it tastes good, get seconds.’ We were wondering what he would take seconds of.”
As for Sally’s fot choy, a stir fry with roast pork, Zimmern took seconds saying her version of the Chinese New Year’s dish was better than any he’d had in mainland China.
That and Yung’s collards were the two dishes he doubled up on.
Before the shoot was over pictures were taken. Dean thought to ask Zimmern to sign one for the Mouchetts.
Without hesitation he signed the picture and then wrote one word. “Amazing.”
“The Blues Trail” segment of “Bizarre Foods America” is scheduled to air on the Travel Channel Aug. 20.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.