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Poke Salet: The Versatile Veggie

By: Angela Gillaspie © August 1998

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pokeweed plant in my back yard
Big Tall Pokeweed Plant!

There is a delicacy here in the Deep South that is free and available to anyone. This vegetable cannot be purchased from a grocery store, but it can be picked from most any back yard, bartered from a friend or neighbor, or ordered from a remote Internet site. This plant is called poke salad, or poke salet, as my family says it. I always thought it was called poke salad because it has the appearance of salad greens and when you pick the leaves, you put them in a poke (that is a paper sack for you non-Southerners).

This perennial plant, Phytolacca Americana, or pokeweed plant, grows wild in the eastern United States, and may reach a height of eight to 10 feet. It is strong smelling and has a poisonous root, and you can see poke salad growing out by the highway if you know what to look for. Poke salad bears small white flowers (which lack petals) in a grape-like cluster that later becomes shiny dark purple berries. These berries are believed to be toxic to humans, but are eaten by birds. (Bird poop tainted with these berries can be quite hard on your car's finish, by the way.) These berries have also been used for dye production. In addition, many a Southern child has made pokeberry mud pies to the feigned amazement of their parents. Older children take great pride in pokeberry sling shot fights.

The plant is generally poisonous, and a seasoned poke salet expert must train one in the proper usage of poke salet before one enjoys a big savory heap of this delicacy. Some rural folks claim poke salet is poisonous unless it is cooked with lots of fatback, but this has not been documented scientifically.

The fresh and very young leaves of poke salet are best to harvest for Granny to cook. The leaves are carefully and thoroughly washed then boiled until they are tender. The liquid (which is also believed to be poisonous) is drained and the leaves are rinsed again. When poke salet is cooked, it resembles spinach and tastes like asparagus. It is a very nutritious greens dish.

My Momma used to put the boiled and rinsed leaves in her cast iron skillet, add in hot pepper sauce, fatback or bacon grease and fry it until it was "done." It's best served with a heap of pinto beans, a big pone of cornbread, three or four slices of a Vidalia onion, and a huge Mason jar topped off with sweet iced tea. As my Daddy says, "I eat a big old bait of poke salet yestiddy and it shore wuz good!"

Another way to cook poke salet is to put the boiled and rinsed leaves in a big skillet with some bacon drippings, an egg or two, a half cup (or more) of chopped onion, and then scramble it all together. Poke salet has the potential to be very versatile; a person from California might want to make a poke salet quiche (but don't tell Aunt Ruth, she'd have a fit). Poke salet would be tasty on a pizza or baked in a calzone. Anything's possible if you are brave enough.

I have searched in vain throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee for a restaurant that serves poke salet. The reason that poke salet isn't on the menu is probably the liability of serving a potentially toxic dish. That or the fact that most Southerners don't feel it would be right to charge a neighbor for something that was free and made out of pure love. Sure we can charge fifty cents for an order of pinto beans, but not poke salet. It just wouldn't be right.

pokeweed under my porch
Young Poke Salet Plant Peeking From my Porch.

I have often wondered how this delicacy was discovered. Through the years, hard luck has chased my family like a pack of hungry beagles after an egg truck. Perhaps the discovery of poke salet was made out of survival instead of want. Several generations ago, my foremommas probably had about six to eight hungry kids to feed, and my foredaddies were out in the fields picking cotton or tobacco. Out of sheer desperation, my foremommas thought, "Lookit this here weed, it's so purty and green -- I bet it'd eat real good. All I have to do is cook it to pieces and smother it with lard." And then, history was made and passed down from generation to generation.

In addition to poke salet's economy and taste, it is being studied by researchers for use in treatments of autoimmune diseases including AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis. The chemicals in poke salet promote cell division in white blood cells that normally would not divide. Poke salet is also being studied as an agent to combat fungal infections.

We need to thank that inventive foremomma of yours or mine. Who knew that the weeds she found in her back yard would fill the bellies of her young, and possibly soothe her aching hands and her dear hard-workin' husband's itchy red feet. Poke salet is definitely the versatile veggie.

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Copyright © 2001 and forward (2018), Angela Gillaspie
Revised - 04/30/2001 - 07/28/2018
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