Hot under the collards

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I was first introduced to a collard sandwich in the late 1990’s while I was visiting my wife’s (then girlfriend) family in Western North Carolina. Their hometown, Mount Airy, is the home of an annual event known as Autumn Leaves Festival. During my first visit to this fest, my in-laws suggested I try the ground steak sandwich which is a popular food option, but my Mother-in-law waited in line for a collard green sandwich.

One day I’ll make and write about Mount Airy’s ground steak sandwich, but for now you should read the Sandwich Tribunal’s in-depth Ground Steak sandwich write-up.

I was never the biggest fan of collards as a kid, so I certainly was not interested in them in sandwich form at that time. My wife started cooking collards soon after we got married and slowly, I built up an appreciation for them. Now I am much more of a fan of collards than I was then.

The collard sandwich from Mount Airy’s Autumn Leaves Festival is served, topped with fatback between a sliced square of cornbread that was baked in a sheet pan. My online research found a blog post from 2020 about the collard sandwich and another blog post from 2008 also focused on Mount Airy’s collard sandwich. Unfortunately, I do not personally have a good photo because I haven’t been able to visit Autumn Leaves in a few years, but the blog posts linked above and the tweet I’ve shared have photos to help you get the gist.

When I began considering the prospect of writing about collard sandwiches, my googling research led me to learn that collard and cornbread sandwiches are a bit more popular across North Carolina than I originally realized.

I don’t know this person, but he’s got one of the only close-up photos of a Mount Airy collard sandwich I could find on the internet.

What I found when I started to investigate was that there are several folks in Southeastern North Carolina who are keeping collard sandwiches in popularity. Our State magazine has an article with a good write-up about the history of the collard sandwich near Lumberton, North Carolina in Robeson County.

“You can eat cornbread without collards, but not collards without cornbread.”

Malinda Maynor Lowery – from The Collard Sandwich is a Robeson County Delicacy

Here’s a wholesome video about a married couple who serve collard sandwiches four times a year at festivals and gatherings in Robeson County (or at least they did prior to Covid).

So, we’ve learned that there are two different styles of collard sandwiches being made in North Carolina and they pretty much only differ in the cooking process for the cornbread. The Robeson County version is more of a fried patty of cornbread and the one that is served in Mount Airy is more of a soft cornbread square like you’ve likely seen or eaten before.

What are we making?

Collard sandwiches, of course!

I made one semi-traditional collard sandwich and two different versions that are inspired by the ones you can buy at North Carolina festivals.

Over the holidays, with assistance from my mom, I made one sandwich that is like the Robeson County version with cornbread fried into a fritter. This sandwich was prepared in my mom’s kitchen with her collard recipe and a leftover piece of country ham from Christmas morning. The cornbread fritter recipe we used was a quick one we found from this Garden & Gun collard sandwich recipe.

Fried cornbread fritters from the Garden & Gun recipe linked above.
A somewhat traditional Robeson County collard sandwich.
My family got to see my sandwich photo taking process for these. 😂

This version was tasty. It was crunchy from the fried cornbread fritter and my mom’s collards are savory with a little vinegar bite. The country ham added even more saltiness and texture. The fritter stayed together most of the way through the sandwich, but it was a knife and fork affair by the end.

The rest of the sandwiches I made were inspired by the Mount Airy and the Robeson County versions, but they weren’t meant to be copycats. The collard recipe we make has bourbon and brown sugar in them and the cornbread we prefer is likely sweeter than these versions.

The sandwiches below that I made and have shared recipes for are inspired by these sandwiches and hopefully the recipes can help you experience a collard sandwich for yourself.

The cornbread(s)

A small stack of cornbread pancakes.

For cornbread, I chose to start with my wife’s usual recipe. I grew up with slightly sweet cornbread and she did not. So, she leans into a cornbread with no sweetness, and I typically urge her to add just a little sugar. This is sort of a blend of the two styles.

This recipe can be made in a cast iron skillet or a square baking dish or cake pan. For these sandwiches I wanted square pieces of cornbread, so I opted for a 9×9 inch cake pan.

It’s hard to do, but you’ll have best results making sandwiches out of sliced cornbread if you wait until it’s cooled off from the baking process. Hot cornbread doesn’t hold together quite as well as room temperature cornbread. Toasting the cornbread after slicing would also help the sandwich stay together.

Recipe Card
28 minutes
Cornbread

This is a recipe for soft, moist cornbread full of sweet and buttery corn goodness with a slight tang from the addition of buttermilk. Serve alongside cooked greens or with a big bowl of chili.

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For a couple of the sandwiches, I adjusted the recipe to make a batter for cornbread pancakes. These were tasty and easy to make. I can envision myself making some savory corn pancakes to eat with something like pulled pork or shredded chicken in the future.

Recipe Card
30 minutes
Cornbread cakes

Soft and fluffy cornbread flavored pancakes can be served as a base layer for pulled pork or served alongside collards. You can even drizzle them with a little honey or maple syrup for a more savory pancake experience.

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The pork(s)

Both types of collard sandwiches in North Carolina usually come with fried fatback either inside the sandwich or served on top or on the side.

I did not buy fatback for these sandwiches. I wanted to have a bacon type of meat with crunchy texture and saltiness to contribute to the soft, cooked collards. I also figured that some of you reading this might not live in an area where fatback was easy to find without special requests from a butcher. Instead of fatback I used two different sliced cuts of pork.

The first pork choice was something I had never cooked before but ended up enjoying: jowl bacon. There’s a lot of fat on jowl bacon (as you can see in the image) but it renders down pretty well. leaving a crispy, crunchy and salty slice of meat.

Jowl bacon
Jowl bacon seared in a pan just like you would cook other bacon.
Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon

I also bought some regular smoked bacon from the grocery. I went with a Wisconsin based brand that’s a bit fancier than something like Oscar Mayer, but it’s not different enough that it’s a whole new type of meat. I figured with a simple sandwich like this, that I wanted a thicker cut of bacon to stand up to the veggies.

Both the jowl bacon and the regular bacon were cooked in traditional ways. I only cooked jowl bacon in a skillet and some of the regular bacon I cooked in a skillet and some I baked in the oven.

The collards

I also used my wife’s collard recipe. She has been cooking them this way for years. She cooked all the batches for these sandwiches (except the traditional one above).

There’s bourbon and brown sugar in these collards, so it’s not based on a down-home collard recipe. Most collards I had growing up were somewhat focused on vinegar and at my parent’s house there was always apple cider vinegar available on the side. The sweetness and notes of caramel from the bourbon in this recipe balance the sharp vinegar tang.

My wife stirring some bourbon brown sugar collards.
Some cornbread pancakes and bacon staged and ready to roll.

Here’s my wife’s collard recipe that I think she has honed to perfection. As I said before, they’re not traditional, so don’t serve them to grandma unless she’s ready to get freaky.

1 hour and 50 minutes
Bourbon brown sugar collards

Serve these slightly sweet and savory collards alongside a juicy steak with some mashed potatoes for an elevated side dish of greens. You can also sandwich them between sliced cornbread for a tasty sandwich experience.

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A square of cornbread, jowl bacon and collards.

Let’s build some collard sandwiches.

It’s just three things. We’ll put them together.

Pan cooked cornbread and jowl bacon accompany this collard sandwich setup.
Griddled cornbread pancakes and traditional smoked bacon joined in this collard sandwich party.
Cornbread pancakes, bacon and collards

Collard and cornbread sandwich recipe

This recipe can be styled after the collards and cornbread sandwich served on the western OR eastern side of North Carolina. Using a square of cornbread split in half or two fried cornbread pancakes to form the “bread” in the sandwich.

Collards and cornbread sandwich view printable page for this recipe

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by Jonathan Surratt

Ingredients:


Directions:

Slice your cornbread or grab your two cornbread cakes. 

If your collards and bacon are cold (from the fridge as leftovers), you can heat them both up in a large skillet over medium low heat. Just add a pile of collards on one side of the skillet and add your slices of bacon on the other side. Heat both for 5 or 10 minutes until they are warmed. 

Add your collards to the bottom slice and top them with bacon.

Top with the top slice of cornbread or the top cornbread cake. 

Serve and enjoy. 

Round collard sandwiches

Here are a couple of the round collard sandwiches I made:

The cornbread pancakes hold together quite a bit better than I expected. They’re less likely to be crumbly like regular cornbread and they give just enough texture to differentiate the three different ingredients.
I fried this corn cake a bit harder than some of the others in a neutral oil. It gave the sandwich a bit more texture, but all the flavors stayed the same.

Square collard sandwiches

And below are a couple of the square collard sandwiches I made:

If you slice and lightly toast the cornbread it will hold together a little better than freshly baked cornbread, but still none of my sandwiches really fell apart until the last couple of bites.
Jowl bacon and collards balance fantastically together.

Hopefully I’ve opened some eyes to the fact that there are people in the world who make collard sandwiches. I enjoyed my dip into the collard and cornbread pool, and hopefully some of you reading this will too.

None of the recipes I shared are especially traditional to North Carolina, but you can use your own favorite cornbread or collard recipes and still make a similarly inspired sandwich. Eat your greens!

Check back next week when I’m 100% writing about a sandwich that’s 100% not French.


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