Soul food tourism: Neiman's $66 collard greens are both a hit and a miss

High-end retailer Neiman Marcus is offering up a $66 order of collard greens as part of its Thanksgiving dishes. The greens have now sold out, leaving many wondering about how to appropriately represent and market dishes with cultural significance.

Neiman Marcus has gone green. As in, collard greens.

The retailer, known for its extravagant – and expensive – Christmas gifts, got started early this year, listing a number of traditional “soul food” options among its Thanksgiving offerings. Baked beans are retailing at $80, while candied yams are on sale for $64. Most astonishing: a side dish of collard greens, (4 portions at 12 oz. each) selling for $66 (and then you can add another $15.50 for shipping). They were so popular, they’ve already sold out on Neiman Marcus’s website.

Clearly, there’s a market for upmarket collard greens. The humble vegetable was once considered an embarrassment and a sign of poverty, by many Americans. Perhaps the appropriation of the humble vegetable is a sign that attitudes toward collard greens are shifting. But many Americans say that’s not the reason. Instead, they suggest, Neiman Marcus buyers simply lack an understanding of Southern soul food and its position in African-American culture.

“I‘ve heard people from the South say that they were ashamed that their family cooked collard greens,” Nicole Taylor, author of the Up South cookbook, told The Washington Post. “Really, they don’t understand the cultural nuances behind greens and what that brings up?” she added.

For Danielle Belton, managing editor of The Root, that cultural context makes the high price tag particularly incongruous.

“It’s just so closely identified with black southern culture that it seems kind of odd to take something that only costs a few dollars in the grocery store and somehow charge $66,” she told CBS News. The Tampa Bay Times reported that $66 is almost double the price per pound that restaurants in the area charge.

And the Neiman Marcus greens are all the more problematic because they aren’t even authentic, many Twitter users complained, using the hashtag #gentrifiedgreens. The listing for the greens describes them as “seasoned with just the right amount of spices and bacon.” But real collard greens, they said, are made with ham hocks.

All in all, the effect is what Ms. Belton described as “soul food tourism.” Ms. Taylor isn’t offended by the phenomenon, she said. After all, it means more people are enjoying the dishes. But the food tourists could use a better guide to the culture they are exploring at the Thanksgiving table, she suggested.

“[Neiman Marcus] should do a better job if they’re going to sell foods that are tied to people’s ethnicity and culture. They need to do some nice copywriting,” she said, suggesting that the listing for the greens should have discussed their origins and significance.

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