I Got Hot Sauce in My Bag for This Glory Foods Can
For many African-Americans -- and others with Southern roots -- there's a lot of lore and nostalgia around cooking and consuming greens. For many, it conjures images of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers running a closed hand down the stalk of each leaf in a swift motion to remove the stem before the greens are piled high in the kitchen sink for cleaning, though some left the stalk intact for added texture. Finally, the leaves are cut or torn into bite-sized pieces and thrown in the largest pot one can find to simmer for hours with smoked meat products (such as turkey wings, ham hocks, or pork neck bones) and other seasonings, like diced onions, crushed red pepper flakes, occasionally a touch of sugar for sweetness, until tender and flavorful.
Greens are a labor of love -- a sacred art form.
Yet as society became increasingly busier, particularly as the women who starred in our memories traditionally tasked with being homemakers entered the workforce, it's easy to see why Bill Williams founded Glory Foods a few decades ago as a way to meet the desire for Southern-style flavors with convenience, offering that slow-cooked taste any day of the week.
I remember seeing cans of Glory Foods greens in my family's cupboard since my childhood in the '90s and early 2000s. "I think we went to somebody's house and the greens were good," my mom shared as to how they entered our kitchen. "We realized they were quick and easy," thus proving the company's mission.
As for the taste, when I sampled some the other day, the "natural smoke flavor" ingredient was at the forefront of my own palate, along with "sodium diacetate for vinegar flavor." Overall, I wasn't mad at what I put in my mouth. No, it isn't the same as what my or your grandma might make, but it's nowhere near the atrocity I’ve heard some consumers claim. In fact, I might even say it was good, given the fact that you only have to heat them up on the stove for a few minutes, as opposed to the hours it takes cooking them from scratch that could be much better spent thinking about going to the gym or finding a new Netflix show to binge. "For some of us, it's close enough to bring back the memories and save us from having to pick and clean greens," my mom echoed.
Williams founded the Glory Foods company in 1989 along with Dan Charna, Iris Cooper, and Garth Henley. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and restaurant owner in Columbus, Ohio, Williams set out to create "truly authentic pre-seasoned [Southern-style] vegetables because they were not available anywhere," his son wrote in a blog post on the company's website. "Unlike Goya, which offered Latin American pantry staples, Williams realized that there was no brand built around the regional tastes of Southerners," Sarah E. White wrote in an article for the Southern Foodways Alliance. In other words, the company's mission was "Goya for Black folks," White told me. (White is currently working on a book about the company with Charna.)
Cooper was brought on board to draft the business plan and help set the direction of the company. "I was a busy working mom with a limited amount of 'me' time. I didn’t cook well and hated housework," Cooper once wrote. "I insisted that our best chance for success was appealing to Black working women, who didn’t have the time or skills to cook like 'Big Mama,' and needed some help in the kitchen."
Canned collards greens were the flagship product for Glory Foods, which officially launched in 1992 in Ohio Kroger stores -- a chain of supermarkets that is now one of the largest in the country -- along with 16 other pre-seasoned canned vegetables, including okra, string beans, and mustard greens. And it seemed to be a hit.
Today, however, it seems that many consumers have moved away from the product, citing either a perceived negative change from the original flavor or a preference for cooking fresh greens over opening a can of processed food. Despite society's fascination with the burgeoning fake meat industry, obsession over a fast food fried chicken sandwich (you know the one I'm talking about), and love for just about everything from Trader Joe's, a line is drawn in the sand at the mere thought of canned vegetables.
Look what happened when I asked about canned collards on Twitter. Who knew they could be such a hotly contested topic? "Serving a can of Glory greens was acceptable in the 90’s [sic] but its [sic] a sin to serve them today. Fresh greens or none at all," one user wrote, and, "These were created by the enemy and should be banned-management," said another.
And for once, it isn't just people on the internet trying to do the most—public opinion shows that eaters today prefer fresh. "Due to consumer perceptions [emphasis mine] about the relative nutrition of [canned fruit and vegetable] products and increased attention to healthy eating, more Americans have favored fresh and organic foods, dampening industry demand during the current five-year period," per a report on the industry.
However, one study has found that "exclusive recommendations of fresh produce ignore the nutrient benefits of canned and frozen products." While yes, there is a loss of some valuable nutrients when canning vegetables along with high amounts of sodium that are often introduced, eating canned vegetables is still better than not eating any at all.
For some in the Black community, there's a stigma around taking shortcuts. As Jay Watkins tweeted, "🗣Black Grandmas Are Denouncing Their Grandchildren Who Cook These. Take Ya Ass To The Sink & Wash The Greens. Get Your Elbow It. We Don’t Do Canned Greens [sic]." Such sentiments introduce an element of shame around the consumption of canned foods, perhaps due to perceived laziness or implications about one's financial status.
As a Boston Globe report discovered, canned vegetables are up to 50 percent cheaper than the frozen version, and up to 80 percent cheaper than the fresh. In a community where one is often showered with admiration for copping the newest shoes, wearing the freshest outfits, and always having your "nails done, hair done, everything did" -- sometimes to the detriment of one's credit score -- you don't want to risk ridicule for eating, let alone enjoying, food from a can.
No surprise to find, then, that while consumer tastes changed over time, so too did Glory Foods. In 2003, the company introduced its Sensibly Seasoned, now Simply Seasoned, line of products featuring less sodium with the express goal of addressing health problems in the African-American community. "The biggest thing is getting people back into the habit of eating green vegetables," Bill Williams, Jr. wrote.
There was also a reformulation of the original collards recipe in 2004 to remove MSG and any trace of meat products to get it in shape for "more natural" grocery stores, per White. Yet, the company seems to have reversed its stance on the latter since then as bacon fat, pork broth, country ham broth, and pork are all currently listed as ingredients on a can I recently purchased.
And then in a further attempt to appeal to this preference for fresh, Glory Foods introduced a line of fresh products in 2001, including bags of pre-washed and cut collard greens. "The company . . . found phenomenal sales growth, fueled largely by African-American consumers. The company’s fresh greens accounted for nearly one-quarter of its overall sales," stated a company announcement.
As a culinary school graduate and recipe developer, I admit that I too have fallen prey to the "fresh is best" mantra running rampant in society today, but for the cash- and/or time-strapped, Glory Foods canned greens are an excellent alternative to putting vegetables on the table and conjuring a sense of home. "The name 'Glory Foods' was given to [invoke] the spiritual joy of experiencing foods that connect the mind, body and soul to the memories of home and family," an article in Cuisine Noir states.
"It's not homemade, but it's a quick and easy alternative," my mother shared. "Glory greens are going on the list right now." I will likely stick to making my own greens from scratch, but will gladly put a spoonful of Glory Foods's greens on my plate if they show up the next time I visit my parents.