Southern Roots

Poking the Sallet

By Verna Gates  |  Photography courtesy of wildabundance.net

   Misspelled Southern green rich in vitamins and calcium has an illustrious history.

   There are those that pronounce this delicious, but dangerous, wild vegetable as Poke Salad. That could be a fatal mistake. The real name is poke salat or Sallet, a word of French origin that refers to a cooked vegetable. It morphed into “salad” with the origins of the Southern accent. Without cooking, poke sallet will cause a number of problems, most of them resembling a colonoscopy prep, the direst death. The root contains the largest concentration of toxins, making it definitely a green, not root, vegetable.

   The “poke” part originates from Native American words for “blood” or “dye,” as the bright berries make dyes so permanent. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with poke berry ink. Many still-readable Civil War letters were inked with poke berries to reassure families back home.

   The general rule for any forager is never eat anything with a red stem. The full grown, five-to-eight-foot plant has a splendid, bright red stem with red veins running through the mature leaves. However, when the plant is fresh in the early spring, about knee-high, a lovely green shade invites the Southern cook.

   The weed grows wild in fields, in the woods, and down my urban alley, and resists cultivation as a bit of bird poop seems to be the magic ingredient for its seeds. Truly a feral food, this plant could spring up in any available Southern landscape.

   In the South, many a poor family has survived on poke sallet. Free nutrition is hard to pass up with hungry mouths to feed. Besides, the tasty green offers a spinach flavor with a salty, mineral twist that makes it a delicious side dish, especially with pork. Not only is the flavor rich, for roughly 20 calories you get a hefty dose of vitamin A, B12, vitamin C, vitamin K, and calcium.

   A generation mostly missed the taste of poke, which is coming back as local sourcing inspires chefs. For the generation after World War II, canned goods smacked of the future and poke greens bore the aftertaste of poverty.

   An Appalachian-based-menu at the Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte is one of the few restaurants to offer poke sallet. Chef Clark Barlowe uses the skills learned in the woods with his grandad, and picks the young leaves for a couple of months in the spring, leaking into the summer. He lines up three pots and blanches the greens three times, discarding the water. He never liked the cooked greens, so instead, he grills the greens for a crunchy texture.

   The traditional recipe calls for a pan with bacon grease, and add molasses. I prefer to add in scrambled eggs and bacon bits.

   When Barlowe read about his Scottish ancestors drinking poke berry punch, he crafted a berry recipe. The juice is hand-squeezed with seeds being sifted out. In the middle of the 19th century, poke berry seeds added rich red colors to port wine, according to legendary herbalist Darryl Patton in Mentone, Ala.

   Many swear by the medicinal value of poke sallet. Many an old-timer will discuss the “spring tonic,” that mysterious concoction of vile taste that cleared the system, making way for revived energy for lengthening days. When most people went barefoot spring, summer and fall, invasive species (read worms) had a tendency to enter the barefooted person. A good dose of poke sallet would whisk out unwanted hijackers and anything else lingering in the digestive system, according to grannies everywhere.

   A gastric irritant, claims Patton, poke sallet performs well as a liver and lymphatic herb. It also dispenses anti-inflammatory properties to help with arthritis pain. He agrees that too much poke can make you sick, “just like 50 aspirins.”

   Even the American Cancer Society sees promise in a protein found in poke that could fight tumors along with herpes and HIV.

   “Poke poisoning is caused by conniptions — as in momma had a conniption fit and took their child to the hospital when they saw poke berry lips,” says Patton, author of “Herbs, Roots and Remedies.”

For the record, a teenaged Dolly Parton colored her lips with poke berries because her family wouldn’t let her wear make-up.

   The infamous plant is celebrated throughout the South in festivals in Arab, Alabama; Toccoa, Georgia; Blanchard, Louisiana; Harlan, Kentucky; and Gainesboro, Tennessee. At most of these events, you can indulge in a mess of poke greens yourself.

   In the immortal words of Tony Joe White in his hit song, “Polk Salad Annie”:

Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods
And in the fields looks somethin’ like a turnip green
And everybody calls it polk salad, polk salad
Used to know a girl lived down there 
And she’d go out in the evenings and pick her a mess of it
Carry it home and cook it for supper
’Cause that’s about all they had to eat, but they did all right.

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