Glory in a Can It's not so easy packing greens

By Sarah E. White

Bill Williams, a CIA-educated African American chef and entrepreneur with roots in Shorterville, Alabama, was living in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s when he noticed something missing from the shelves of local grocery stores. Unlike Goya, which offered Latin American pantry staples, Williams realized that there was no brand built around the regional tastes of Southerners.

Surely there was a market for canned versions of the Southern staples he grew up on—his mother’s collard greens, for instance. Williams brought the idea to his friend Dan Charna, a food-service professional from Cleveland, and the two became partners. Williams’ business partner Garth Henley of Columbus came on as an investor. Iris Cooper soon joined the team as a marketer, proposing the name “Glory Foods” for the new enterprise.

Charna and Williams approached Kroger in Columbus about carrying their Southern-style product line. It would include canned field peas, boxed cornbread mix, and hot sauce. Seasoned collards greens would be the flagship product.

Glory’s founders knew it was futile to compete for a place on the Sunday dinner table. Homemade, slow-cooked, seasoned collard greens were sacred to families with roots in the South. But the partners saw an opportunity to replicate home-cooked greens in a can, stewed and seasoned for weeknight convenience. Turns out, the textures and flavors that made homemade greens shine weren’t easy to package. Here’s a step-by-step look at their first run.

Find a cannery

Charna and Williams traveled to Effingham, South Carolina, to meet with brothers Henry Swink and Marion Swink, owners of McCall Farms. What they found there resembled a Rube Goldberg contraption in a bat cave. Sunlight pierced the gloom to glint off the steel cookers. Sweating workers moved to the music of the rattling conveyor belts, the clanging pressure cookers, and the hissing steam escaping from the huge retorts. The sulfurous funk of cooked vegetables hung in the air. On the day Williams and Charna visited, McCall Farms was canning for a regional brand called Margaret Holmes. McCall Farms was the only co-packer who had returned their calls, and now the Swinks promised they could provide whatever Glory Foods needed to get greens harvested and canned.

Glory Foods contracted with McCall Farms to source the greens and can them according to the recipes Charna and Williams had created. When the collard crop came ready for harvest in the spring of 1992, Williams and Cooper stayed in Columbus to plot a sales strategy while Charna and Henley returned to Effingham for Glory Foods’ first run at canning greens.

Cut: Not too high, not too low

The quality of a harvest determines the quality in the can. Charna supervised the farmer cutting the crop to ensure it met the leaf-to-stem ratio the recipe specified. Crops grow to different heights depending on microconditions in the field. Cut too high and you get an excellent ratio of leaf to stem, but the farmer loses money because less weight is generated. Cut too low and not only do you get more stem, you get more of any foreign material in the field. Frogs, insects, trash thrown from passing cars—if it’s in the field, it gets harvested.

That first day, the heat out in the open fields was intense. Charna wasn’t used to it. Sweat rolled down his body in rivers as he rode the cutter behind the farmer driving the tractor.

Charna was supposed to tell the farmer when to raise or lower the straight blade of the cutter based on the height of the plants and the roll of the field, to maintain an even ratio of leaf to stem among all the greens going into the bin. At first, Charna couldn’t understand the farmer’s accent; eventually, the two men developed hand signals to communicate.

Can “wet newspaper”

Trucks of harvested greens sped from the field to the McCall Farms receiving dock, where they were weighed. Workers forked greens from truck beds onto a conveyer belt of quarter-inch mesh designed to remove debris.

The greens moved from the reel to steam blanchers to get the air out and bring them up to canning temperature—hot, but still raw. A quality control team eyeballed them for any obvious contamination before they moved to a chopper to be cut into roughly two-inch squares. During recipe development, Williams had determined that the size of the chop would make Glory Foods collard greens seem homestyle rather than factory-produced.

Steamed greens have the consistency of wet newspaper. Peas and beans roll, but hands keep blanched greens from sticking in clumps and falling unevenly into the cans. Getting the right fill weight on each can was difficult. Either they were too heavy because a worker was pushing the greens into the can as it went down the line, or they were too light because someone was taking greens off the top to make sure there was headspace in the can, which is essential for pressure cooking.

Worse, greens chopped to that two-inch spec were prone to slopping over the rims of the cans. That caused problems when the cans met the closing machine. A can might look fine, but a tiny flaw in that seam where greens hung over the rim made that can a breeding ground for post-process contamination. In a few days, it would explode. One exploding can might cause its neighbors to erupt. The chain reaction could wipe out whole pallets of product.

Spice it right

Getting the right amount of blanched collards to enter the can cleanly was half the battle. The other half was portioning the spice mixture. This was crucial to delivering a consistent Glory Foods product.

While Charna rode the cutter in the field, Marion Swink stationed Henley at the mouth of the vibrating conveyor trough to monitor the blend. He could speed up or slow down the vibration of the trough to get the right amount of seasonings in each can.

A canning plant is a humid environment. Salt is hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts water from the atmosphere. In the steamy cannery, that salty spice mix clumped around the mouth of the dispenser. Some cans got none, some got the proper measure, and some a massive lump.

It was Henley’s job to grab over-filled or under-filled cans off the line. The cans’ mouths were as sharp as razor blades. It felt like 120 degrees in that plant; soon his hands were cut to ribbons and stinging from his sweat and the spice mix. There were pools of watery collard soup at his feet, run-off from the blanching process and the over-filled cans. Every time he touched the conveyor, he received an electrical shock.

Cool it (and store it, and move it)

After the cans were filled, they were loaded into retorts and cooked under pressure. Workers opened a sample can every hour to test that nothing had gone wrong with the process. Finally, cans were cooled by submersion in cold, chlorinated water. In under twelve hours, the vegetables made it from the field to the storage bays. Day by day, the warehouse filled with pallets of Glory greens.

With time, the Swink brothers and Charna solved the two production challenges. To avoid the clumping spices, McCall Farms began using seasoned brine in place of the powdered spice mix. To stop the “wet newspaper” ruining the seal of the cans, McCall Farms switched to a larger can size, which gave a larger target to fill. Williams came up with the perfect explanation for the grocers: “The cans are family-sized. When you make greens, you don’t make a little, you make a mess of them. It should be the same whether they come from your garden or from a can.” The grocery stores bought it, and so did customers.

“Tuesday Greens” today

Glory Foods began on McCall Farms. Today, McCall owns Glory. Its canning operation consists of miles of gleaming steel in a state-of-the-art facility. And you can still find those collards—in mess-of-greens-sized cans—on grocery shelves far and wide.

Sarah E. White, a Wisconsin native, is at work on a history of Glory Foods.

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey