by Ray Linville
A trip to the small town of Ayden is usually for wood-cooked barbecue because it’s the home to two of the state’s premier BBQ establishments – Skylight Inn and Bum’s Restaurant. However, when I traveled there, I was searching for The Collard Shack as much as I was for chopped whole hog barbecue.
In 2011 when David Cecelski wrote about The Collard Shack in one of his legacy posts on this blog, he peaked my interest in its yellow cabbage collards. This type of collard is considered milder and more tender than most collards. (I didn’t think that four years would pass before I could visit – actually my first attempt in 2013 was blocked by a violent summer thunderstorm with a tornado warning for Pitt County. Although only 30 minutes away from Ayden, I had to turn south for a safer area and return home.)
I can report that little has changed since David’s visit. The Collard Shack is still famous for its yellow cabbage collards. They were the first items that I saw when I arrived. Although I wanted to take home only a few plants, they come in only multiples of 25. The price is a multiple of $3: 25 for $3, 50 for $6, 75 for $9, etc. If you want a quantity discount, you have to take home 1,000 bedding plants!
As a novice collard grower, I sought the wise counsel of Benny Cox, who manages The Collard Shack and advises beginners as well as expert gardeners. Talking to him was the highlight of the visit. He’s very entertaining and obviously loves his plants. His years of experience in the collard fields are evident in the lines and hue of his face. The bundle of 25 plants that I bought were light green with moist root balls and lengthy but fragile stems about four inches long. Cox explained how far apart to plant the collards and showed how much of the stems should be covered with soil.
Because I was also interested in collard seeds, I asked how long it takes for seeds to sprout? “It’s all up to the Lord — the Lord does all the growing,” Cox answered matter-of-factly. I eventually pulled out from him that about six weeks is the time frame. He continued to explain that bedding plants for a fall crop are best planted in late August to early September.
Starting with bedding plants is a major advantage to get the collards growing plus the seeds are hard to obtain. Drawing on his knowledge of eastern North Carolina, Cecelski explains, “[C]abbage collard seeds are a treasure meant for children and grandchildren.” To improve their availability, Cox provided seed stock to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which sells seeds to farmers and gardeners.
As I was talking to Cox, his father-in-law Robert Jones arrived with another truck load of bedding plants. At 89, Jones still exhibits the family’s glowing pride in the fresh plants and produce that The Collard Shack sells. When I was there, onion and hot pepper plants were also in abundant supply. Depending on the month, tomato and cabbage plants may be available too. In addition, fresh produce for sale may include potatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, squash and grapes as well as collards. The Collard Shack is only open three days a week (Thursday through Saturday), so plan your visit accordingly.
The Collard Shack is located on the southern edge of Ayden, the home of the official N.C. collard festival that is typically held the second weekend in September. Preeminent among the activities is the collard eating contest. The man and woman who consume the most in 30 minutes take home $100 each, although the contest rules also specify that they have to “keep them down long enough to collect the prize.”
Although chopped whole hog barbecue is important in Ayden and thousands of visitors stop at its famous restaurants, Ayden is equally on the map because its collards define the region – and the yellow cabbage collards are the best. Stopping at the Collard Shack was a fun experience and as memorable as enjoying barbecue next door at the famous Skylight Inn.
The Collard Shack
4639 South Lee Street
Ayden, NC 28513
Ray Linville writes and lectures on regional culture, including foodways and folklife. He has taught in the N.C. Community College System as a professor of English and humanities and served on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.