I prefer my phytolacca dipped in milk and egg batter, rolled in a mixture of meal, flour, salt, and pepper and then deep fried in a cast iron skillet. Phytolacca is a genus of perennial plants native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand. Some members of the genus are known as pokeweeds or similar names such as poke bush, poke berry, poke root or poke sallet.
I’ve had poke sallet boiled down and cooked like any other greens with a little seasoning and maybe a bit of bacon grease thrown in. I’ve eaten the stems sliced like okra, washed and rolled in corn meal before frying. I’ve had poke sallet cooked down with scrambled eggs thrown in at the end. I have also heard that some people add fatback and a little molasses to the greens as they cook them. Interesting, to say the least. However you may choose to cook your poke sallet, I guarantee it will never taste any better than when served with hot cornbread fresh from the oven.
Poke is a wild growing plant that pops up in the spring and is there for the connoisseur of natural herbs. At least one university is studying the possibility of growing poke as a crop and making it marketable. Each poke berry has many seeds per berry. They are eaten by birds and distributed in their droppings, but poke only grows under favorable conditions. I’ve heard that the best way to find the spring poke plant is along a fence row, beside of the road, or in ground that has been disturbed.
Another name for the poke plant is “inkberry.” The juice of the purple berries was used as ink by soldiers during the Civil War. It is said that the ink from these berries was so durable that letters written during that time period and preserved in museums are still clearly readable thanks to the deep color of the pokeberry juice ink.
Native Americans ate the plant and used it for medicinal purposes before European settlers came to this country. Settlers quickly learned to savor the poke plant and looked forward to it every spring as a tonic. Many Appalachians believe that eating fresh poke greens in the spring purifies the blood.
The possibility of using the plant in modern day medicine is under investigation. Some believe it might hold secrets to cure cancer.
Harlan County, Kentucky is not the only site of a Poke Sallet Festival, but is the longest running festival. Gainesboro, Tennessee also boasts a similar festival held in May. 2012 is the 57th Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival.
My computer doesn’t recognize the word sallet. That is because the origins of this word are from old world Middle English. It means any kind of greens that are edible. The modern translation would simply be salad. One source reports that sallet refers to any cooked greens and salad refers to uncooked greens.
I’ve been told that the only time to eat poke is in the early spring when the plants first appear and the young leaves are green and tender. I’ve also heard that when the leaves begin to get reddish veins, when the stalks turn reddish purple, or when it is big enough to have purple berries, that the plant is poisonous and should not be eaten at all.
Word of Harlan County’s Poke Sallet Festival is well known across Kentucky. On a recent trip to Somerset, I was surprised to see two billboards advertising this year’s festival. Mountain folk were enjoying poke sallet long before it became the focus of a festival.
Some of my students over the years have talked about looking for poke in the spring. Relatives at Smith go out on four wheelers every spring and bring back trash bags full of the green leaves. They often share with my mom and dad. I am always thrilled when my mom calls and invites me to supper with poke sallet as one of the main dishes.
Sometimes my mom cooks, then freezes poke sallet. That works pretty well. I’ve also heard of people home canning it, although I’ve never sampled any preserved in that way.
With the weather being rather strange this spring, every green thing seemed to sprout early, or flower early. I sure hope there was enough to satisfy the taste buds of the curious at the Poke Sallet Festival.