By Dana Goolsby
Poke Sallet, pronounced polk salad in more recent years, is deeply rooted in the Pineywoods’ folklore and was once an East Texas delicacy. The lack luster plant has lost its appeal with modern day generations. It is highly likely that most people under the age of 40 have never even heard of poke sallet, let alone seen a mess served for dinner.
Poke Sallet was even the subject of a song once. In 1968, Tony Joe White performed his soon-to-be hit song, “Polk Salad Annie.” The song describes the life of a typical Southern girl.
According to an interview conducted with White about his famous song, “They had done give up on it, but we kept getting all these people in Texas coming to the clubs and buying the record. All the stores in Texas kept calling our house saying ‘We need more.’ So we just kept hanging on.”
The song was out nine months before it peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Elvis almost immediately recorded White’s hit in 1970 and made it a staple of his performances. Other artists like Tom Jones also recorded versions of White’s song.
You will not find this East Texas dish on any café menu, even deep in the Pineywoods. This wild delicacy, also known as poke weed, poke root, poke bush and inkberry, is a large plant that grows wild in the Deep South. Most people have walked by the plant or chopped it down a hundred times and never given it a second thought, and certainly never thought of serving it up for supper. Poke sallet can grow up to 10 feet high. The spring brings bright green poke sallet, but by fall the stalk turns dark pink.
Years ago, East Texans would scour the countryside in search of this wild plant. Some say this dish was born out of hard times. Many believed the plant served special medical purposes if cooked just right. But according to area folklore, if not prepared properly poke sallet might be your last meal. Some even say poke sallet must be cooked three times to ensure those who feast on it will not be poisoned. Old timers in the area have said the only cure for poke sallet poisoning is to consume approximately one pound of lard and as much vinegar as possible. Some might just take their chances with the poisonous plant rather than the cure.
The Cherokee Indians who once lived in the Pineywoods knew the value of poke sallet. The Cherokees used the plant to treat boils, acne, swelling and arthritis. They also made use of the dye and ink produced by the poke berries. Civil War soldiers also used the dye to write home to loved ones.
Those who enjoy a plate of poke sallet prefer young plants, or the tips of mature plants. Mature plants may yield bitter or tough leaves. Several dishes can be made from the plant other than poke sallet such as poke soup, poke pickles, fried poke stalks and poke tuna roll.
Wine lovers and the brave of heart might enjoy pokeberry wine. Many contend the berries are lethal, but some say the red wine is an excellent antidote for arthritis.
If you have never tried poke sallet but have the nerve to do so, pick some poke sallet and let’s get started. You will need a few pieces of bacon, an onion, butter, salt and pepper.
First wash the greens, then wash them some more. Just for good measure, wash them a little more. Then blanch the greens three times or until the water runs clear. Blanching the greens thoroughly tenderizes them and removes all toxins.
After you have blanched your greens, fry a bit of bacon. Save the bacon grease for frying the greens. Crumble the bacon into small pieces and add diced onion, then set aside. Toss your greens into the frying pan. Fry the greens until they become a bit wilted then remove them from the frying pan and place on a paper towel to drain off some of the grease. Then add the onion and bacon mixture, and a dab of butter. Some people like to add chopped boiled eggs, or even scrambled eggs to their poke sallet. Finally, add salt and pepper to taste… then taste!
*Remember, poke sallet contains dangerous toxins when not prepared properly. Harvest the plant when sprouts are young and tender. For the best sprouts harvest the plant from three to twelve inches. Also, be certain that the plant you are harvesting is poke sallet. Do not pick plants with dark pink or purple stalks. Only the green stalks will do!