"I've tried to instill in my children the same lessons taught by my grandparents in that you can live anywhere in the mountains and survive," Foster said. "Mother Nature makes sure we have plenty of plants for nourishment as well as medicinal purposes, and poke is one of those plants."
Since March, Foster has been making daily stops at Rosspoint's Copperhead Stables on her way home from work to walk a hillside covered in poke. After noticing the plant growing in abundance near U.S. 119, she asked Don Rigney, the stable's owner, if she could gather what she could until Harlan's homecoming. After permission was granted, Foster has kept busy filling several garbage bags, preparing for the big day when people come from all over to sample Harlan County's own menu of poke sallet recipes.
Even if she wasn't getting ready for the Poke Sallet Festival, Foster said she would still be picking it wherever she could find it.
"Oh, it's a good feeling to come upon a good stalk about 3 or 4 inches thick," she said. "Poke comes in handy for a lot of reasons. My grandfather was a farmer and believed in the healing power of herbs and other plants, but he also thought it was a tasty dish, and I couldn't agree with him more. Picking poke is a tradition. Just like going bears lettuce hunting, it's something our ancestors used to have to do. They depended upon the land. And for us today, it should be an honor to carry on their traditions."
While summer food and fun are offered at almost every turn of the street in downtown Harlan during the Poke Sallet Festival, the real reason behind the event, according to Foster, is to celebrate mountain heritage.
Poke sallet, or as it is scientifically called "Phytolacca americana," is a common plant of the eastern United States and is also known as poke weed, poke greens, pocan, pigeonberry and inkberry. It can be found in abundance in open fields, along roadsides, and in waste areas such as disturbed habitats and abandoned mine sites. It's a large, handsome plant that grows as tall as 5 to 9 feet. In the spring, fresh and tender poke leaves can be picked and prepared as "poke sallet," and old English name for "cooked greens."
It has a large white root, a green, red or purple stem, alternate leaves up to a foot long and white flowers in a dropping pattern. The berry is dark purple, round, soft and juicy.
For medicinal purposes, the poke plant is used to treat asthma, boils and sores, stomach ulcers and is also used as a spring tonic.
Foster remembers her grandmother "cooking up a mess" when the weather turned warmer.
"We called it poke root," she said. "And my grandfather would take a bunch of herbs, including poke root, to stay healthy. To this day, I try to take the same ones he did."
While some don't care for poke, there are just as many, if not more, who can't get enough of, as in the words of songwriter Murph Howard "that delicious tasting stuff." Foster won an award during past festivals for her poke pizza recipe. The bushels of poke she's picked will be used for the Lions Club food booth, which will be selling all sorts of poke-related food this Saturday. The group, of which Foster is a member, will be offering the traditional poke sallet meal, plus poke patties, poke bread, poke stir fry as well as poke pizza.
"You'd be surprised the number of people who travel great distances just to get a taste," she said. "It surprises us every year."
While picking days have almost come to an end, Foster won't be resting for too long, for there are other mountain herbs to be gathered and put to good use. Poke, though, happens to be one of her favorites. Not because she likes the taste, but because it conjures up so many memories from her childhood.
"And it places Harlan County on the national map," she said. "For once, people come flooding into town, just like old times. It heals, it nourishes and it's bringing people back home. I guess there is power in poke."