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On the farm with Joseph Fields and Workmen's Café

When Greens are Gold

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Less than 24 hours had passed since J.Lo took to the pole at halftime, but the game couldn't have been further from our minds.

Angie Bellinger, owner and chef of landmark comfort food restaurant Workmen's Cafe, and I are the only two visitors on a gorgeous Monday afternoon. It's the one day every week the Joseph Fields Farm market is closed to visitors, and there's nothing and no one blocking our view of endless rows of early-ripening strawberries, spinach, and mustard greens. Not even mosquitos. Down the winding driveway, past rusted trucks and a ceiling-high stack of coolers in the back shed, we hear one adamant rooster making his presence known.

But the Super Bowl is the first thing on the eponymous Joseph Fields' tongue when we find him leaning near the chicken and duck coop, searching his phone for YouTube.

After he cheekily introduces himself as Frank, Fields recounts the story of how he got a spot in the Michelob Ultra Pure Gold's "6 for 6-Pack" commercial during Super Bowl LIV. There he is, at the 50 second mark, standing in a grain field in Southern California among rows of barley that Fields explains were shipped in from North Dakota and glued to boards to give the illusion of amber waves of grain.

On Fields' own farm, a 50-plus acre plot just across River Road from the brick house where he grew up, there are plenty of genuine fields, sprouting spring onions, dinosaur kale, mustard greens, cabbages, turnips, rutabagas, and peas planted by a visiting school group. Leaving the rooster crows behind, Fields tours us through rows of strawberries quickly turning from frosty white to deep red thanks to oddly warm weather.

"Just a dollar a pop," Fields teases, urging us to pick and test a ripe berry.

"My God, I'm going to have to come out here more often," says Bellinger.

Among the strawberry rows, a green weed has popped through and Fields quickly picks it by the roots, but instead of discarding it, he brings it over to show us the little basil-shaped leaves growing to a sharp point. They make a perfectly fresh palate cleanser after the sweet berries.

"You call it a weed," he says, chewing, "but you go to a Caribbean restaurant and you can take this little green and put it in a salad, cook it, and call it callaloo. You call it a weed because we don't eat it."

"I can see myself coming up here once a week," Bellinger says again. A breeze kicks up fresh air scented with dirt and grass and something sweet and it's hard to disagree.

This weekend, Bellinger and Fields will take to the Marion Square stage together at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, explaining the story behind Bellinger's greens, a staple dish made from Fields' collards, thick with smoky flavor and topped with crumbled bacon.

"The green is darker, more flavorful, more tender," Bellinger muses. "I mean, the aroma coming off of it when I stir fry it, oh man!"

That's saying something coming from a chef and a Southern woman, born and raised just a mile or two away, who absolutely abhors collards.

"I hate collards with a passion," she laughs. "My customers love collards, but I hate them. My mom served it to us so much that I got tired of it."

Bellinger's mother was the impetus and inspiration for Workmen's Cafe, calling her daughter back from Ohio after graduate school to open the restaurant and dish up pork chops, mac and cheese, and those famous greens just the way she was taught.

"Believe it or not, my dad taught my mom to cook," says Bellinger. "They met when she was 14, right here." She points down River Road. "My dad was born and raised around here. My uncle had a store — we passed it on the way here — that's closed now, and he also ran the bus service. Back then the blacks and the whites were not allowed to be on the same bus, so my dad's uncle, George Bellinger, ran the bus line transporting the black folks to and from town. My mom was the only girl and had six brothers, and all she wanted to do was be out in the field with her brothers, so she didn't know how to cook until my dad taught her."

At age 14, Bellinger, the only child left at home, went to her mother and told her she wanted to learn how to cook.

"She said, 'Okay. When you're in that kitchen I need you to be in that kitchen and you need to do everything I tell you,'" Bellinger remembers. "Yes ma'am."

"When I went off to college I was 27, and within the first week I called my mom and when she answered the phone I said, 'Thank you.' She asked what for, and I said, 'for teaching me how to cook.'"

If there's one word for the work these two Charleston natives do daily, it's family.

RUTA SMITH
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"Turn around," Fields tells us, still standing between rows of berries. "That's where I grew up, that house over there." He's pointing to a one-story brick home across the two-lane road, next to a little restaurant with a marquee reading Fields Family Restaurant in black and red letters. "That spot was a jip joint. You know what that is?"

"A neighborhood night club," Bellinger pipes in. "Where people go to unwind on Friday and Saturday night. We had about three or four on Grimball Road back in the '70s."

Bellinger's cousin is married to Fields' brother, one of six siblings who lives out here on the farmland and helps with the restaurant, flea market, farm store, and the grandchildren's dogs, one of which is barking and pulling at his rope back behind the hen coop.

"I told you we was family," Bellinger laughs.

She's been running her café solo for years, and all that standing is starting to take its toll, on her knees and her energy.

"It'd been just me for a long time ... No children, never been married! I figured if it didn't happen by the time I was 30, I was not going to shed a tear," she laughs.

Planning on venturing into dinner this summer, Bellinger will be doubling the Café's working hours and expanding the menu.

"I was trying to do brisket but I couldn't get it right. I have two local chefs helping me with the menu ... one, he asked me if I've ever made a chuck roast. I said, 'Yeah that was our Sunday dinner,' and he said, 'So, if you know how to make a chuck roast, why you fooling around with a brisket? You're losing the concept of Workmen's Cafe if you do a brisket. You cook the food that you grew up with.'"

Workmen's Café is a meat-and-three type of place for the working men (and women, but mostly meat-loving men, says Bellinger) of James Island. Think: Half-inch-thick pork chops that extend over the edge of a plate next to lima beans and bacon-topped greens from Fields' farm.

"By the time I do all of that [opening for dinner], I'll be out of the cafe too," Bellinger says, now padding through fields of mustard greens in her slide-on flats, nylons, and Workmen's chef's coat. "I'm going to hire some people to run it for me, and sell my ownership. After 20 years and just me for so long ... Whoever I get is going to have to work under me for three months minimum. I'm going to write all the recipes and they have to do it just like me. I'm OK with parting with some of my secrets, as long as they do it just like I tell them to."

By now we've reached the far end of the field, where Fields picks spears of fresh spring onions, peeling away the paper-thin pod on top to reveal tiny white floral shoots that he says are perfect on a spring salad. Bellinger is talking of taking photography back up and going on road trips after retiring from the kitchen. Not far away a rooster is still taunting the tied-up puppy, and downtown Charleston seems much further than 15 miles away.

Bellinger laughs, seemingly without a care in the world. "Oh Lordy, I haven't been in the fields since I was a kid!"

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