Every day ’fore supper time
She’d go down by the truck patch
And pick her a mess o’ poke sallet
And carry it home in a tote sack . . .
Those lines are from one of my favorite Tony Joe White songs, “Poke Sallet Annie,” but it might as well be called “Poke Sallet Granny” for my maternal grandmother, who loved poke sallet (“salad”) more than anybody I have ever known.
What, you might ask, is poke sallet? If you’re asking, you must not be from these parts. Tony Joe explains it pretty well, actually:
If some of y’all never been down South too much,
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you’ll understand what I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
Looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it poke sallet.
Poke . . . kuh . . . sallet . . . ungh.
Mee-Ma lived with us for awhile when I was in my early teens. She really would take a grocery sack — a poke — and walk the country roads near our house and pick the smallest, tenderest shoots of this weed. She’d bring a ton of it back to the house, wash it thoroughly, then boil it several times until the house stank like some kind of hot sulfur springs. Then she would scramble it in eggs cooked in bacon grease until the eggs were brownish-green and the house really stank. She’d eat the entire mess with a big hunk of cornbread crumbled up in a tall glass of buttermilk.
Pokeweed in late summer
Poke doesn’t grow only in the woods and the fields. Last weekend I was piddling around on the back 40 and watching the chickens forage. They were feasting on the long-legged purple ladies of poke I have let grow freely at the rear of my lot, partly because I think they are rather stately and partly because birds other than the chickens love them for the berries they form in the late summer.
They reminded me that I’ve been meaning to give Mee-Ma’s recipe, which I haven’t tasted since I was about thirteen, a try. So I gathered up a mess in a basket (I didn’t have a poke handy).
Mee-Ma didn’t eat the youngest, smallest leaves just because they were the tastiest. Poke sallet is actually pretty poisonous, the roots and berries especially (though not for birds), and the larger leaves can make you very sick. She boiled them three times because that’s how she cooked the toxins out.
In fact, if you read around, the prevailing wisdom is that only a damn fool would eat poke sallet, even if you cook it over and over again. My favorite dire warning comes from Wikipedia:
The eating of limited quantities of poke, perhaps of the shoots, may cause retching or vomiting after two hours or more. These signs may be followed by dyspnea, perspiration, spasms, severe purging, prostration, tremors, watery diarrhea and vomiting (sometimes bloody) and, sometimes, convulsions. In severe poisonings, symptoms are weakness, excessive yawning, slowed breathing, fast heartbeat, dizziness, and possibly seizures, coma and death.
Well, there’s no fool like a southern fool waxing nostalgic for her dead granny’s weird cooking. Mee-Ma had to have eaten enough poke sallet in her life to kill her several times over, and while she may have suffered from prostration a time or two (mostly due to orneriness, I’d say), she lived a long life and died because she was old and wore out.
So I went with it. Between my obsessive weeding and the chickens’ nibbling, there really wasn’t much in the way of young poke to be gathered. So my mess was pretty small, which might have been a blessing. I gathered what I could, brought it in and gave it a good washing, carefully took out all the stems, and put it through its first cooking in salted boiling water.
Palava with chicken over rice in Liberia
I drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again in more salted water.
Drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again, this time with a hunk of smoked pepper bacon. Now the house was smelling pretty good.
After the third boiling, I noted that the greens were beginning to resemble a traditional palava dish of okra leaves that I had eaten in Liberia a couple of years ago, which had been delicious, so how bad could this be?
Mee-Ma would have answered that there was nothing that bacon grease couldn’t make taste good. So I melted a good tablespoon of it in a skillet and let the slimy poke slide in along with some spring onions. After it sizzled a bit I threw in a couple of eggs and a good dose of salt and pepper. I cooked them down til the eggs were dry.
It looked familiar. Mee-Ma would have eaten it, I think, but she would have fussed at me for not having any cornbread and buttermilk for her.
I washed mine down with a big glass of iced tea. It weren’t too half bad — the poke gave the eggs a darkened flavor that was definitely enhanced by bacon grease. Caleb liked it, too. And in spite of some excessive yawning and a wee bit of perspiration, we both lived to tell the tale — so far.
Here’s what Tony Joe White has to say about it.