We Southerners can be mighty picky about our food traditions; even if they're not planning to write a letter to the editor, you won't find someone from the South without strong opinions on something. Sugar in cornbread (no), the correct ice to use in a mint julep (crushed) and the proper version of any given recipe (either mama's or grandma's). So if you ask a Southerner about potlikker, expect an earful.
Like so many Southern foods, potlikker comes from a desire to use up every bit of an ingredient. In this case, it's also healthy and tasty, making it a Southern superfood.
What is Potlikker?
In short, potlikker is the liquid left behind after simmering a pot of greens and ham hocks or salt pork. The greens cook for at least an hour, meaning that the cooking liquid is steeped in all the goodness of the vegetables and pork. Traditional, potlikker uses collard greens, but mustard greens, turnip greens and even kale all have potlikker.
Instead of discarding the flavorful liquid, full of iron and vitamin C, along with other vitamins and minerals, people would drink it as a broth. Or they would dunk or crumble up cornbread in the liquid for a kind of soup.
You can't consider the place potlikker has in our kitchen without acknowledging the place it has in our history. Enslaved people who did the cooking in kitchens across the South knew the value of the broth. While the pot of greens was served to the family, they could take the discarded bits and use them (much like with chitlins). Knowing that the broth contained nutrients, they saved that and made a meal from it.
The Great Debate on Potlikker Soup; Pot Liquor Vs. Potlikker
In the South, there is no debate over the spelling of the word. It's not pot liquor, it's potlikker, and we have that on record. In 1989, the lieutenant governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, wrote a letter to the New York Times after the paper published an article that referred to pot liquor:
I always thought The New York Times knew everything, but obviously your editor knows as little about spelling as he or she does about Appalachian cooking and soul food.
Only a culinarily-illiterate damnyankee (one word) who can't tell the difference between beans and greens would call the liquid left in the pot after cooking greens 'pot liquor' (two words) instead of 'potlikker' (one word) as yours did. And don't cite Webster as a defense because he didn't know any better either. Sincerely, Zell Miller, Lieutenant Governor State of Georgia."
The great debate is whether you dunk your cornbread or crumble it up into the broth. In fact, this debate was the subject of a public dust-up in 1931 between Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, and senator-elect Huey Long from Louisiana. Harris wrote about how Long had closed the deal on the sale of highway bonds by serving a supper of potlikker and cornpone, but he went on to disparage the way Long dunked his cornpone instead of crumbling it as was traditional.
Long, never someone to back down from a fight, loudly supported the dunking method. And while this might have been an interesting diversion from the news of the day, people around the United States got involved in the debate. John T. Edge, head of the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote his graduate school thesis on the Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 in which "movie reel viewers joined the conversation, ladies' groups gathered to dunk and crumble, and the Constitution received more than six hundred letters to the editor" on the subject.
If you've never tried potlikker, you should. You can drink the potlikker as is, try your favorite method of cornbread application or you can turn it into potlikker soup by adding other ingredients like sausage and black-eyed peas.