Poke Sallet and the Mother In Law

While visiting the MIL on our (usually) annual visit to Tennessee I could not help but notice the tall, pinkish-red stemmed weedy looking plants in her garden. She informed me that it was poke, a traditional southern/Native American green, and mentioned she had some cooked poke up in her freezer and offered to serve some at dinner.

I took her up on it. I had heard of poke before, usually as pokeweed or poke sallet. I also knew uncooked/unprocessed pokeweed is toxic. I wasn’t too clear on her explanation of how she prepared it, although there was mention of frying and bacon grease near the end as frequently occurs in her kitchen.

What can I say? They’re cooked greens. VERY cooked greens, of necessity, which remarkably retained some flavor (beyond the bacon grease, which was very understated in this instance). Flavor somewhat reminiscent of a mix of good spinach and the green leafy part of bok choy, sweeter than I anticipated.

Well, I did some little research on it once back home and with access to the internet and I’m beginning to understand why this is not available in stores. Apparently, some toxin remains even after proper cooking. The primary symptom is, um, elimination. Can’t say that I was much troubled, though it would account for the doubling of normal visits to the Little Room the morning after eating said greens. Nothing catastrophic in this instance, and given that diet changes while traveling sometimes either slow down or speed up my gastrointestinal tract maybe just a coincidence.

Since the Other Half is somewhat prone to digestive complaints I think I may discard rather than use the frozen half-pound of pokeweed sent back north with us. Recommendations on all websites consulted are “eating not recommended”. Too bad. Obviously, has some utility as a survival food (if you have sufficent boiling water to detoxify it to edible levels) but lack of food is not a problem in the US these days, at least not at my house.

Would be nice if someone could develop a non-toxic cultivar, as having a perennial source of tasty greens has appeal to some of us. Alas, no work seems to be underway in this area.

As the flavor is sort of “generic cooked greens” I’m thinking prudence would dictate going back to spinach, turnip tops, and the like. I’m not going to say jack to the MIL - she’s 70 years old and been eating it all her life (in much moderation, it’s not a daily affair). She’s a big girl who can make her own decisions about eating and apparently she’s not consuming enough to hurt her so I’ll leave well enough alone. Mountain folks are stubborn and attempts to dissuade her from eating something usually has the opposite effect.

And that, boys and girls, was this trip’s culinary adventure.

Other experiences with poke sallet and/or comments, cautions, etc. would be appreciated.

My only comment is that I always heard it as “poke salad”, but never saw it written before, so I could very well be wrong.

Ah, yes. As a transplanted Yankee, I was introduced to this a few years ago.
What gets me is the explanation I got from my in-laws about it’s preparation. Apparently, it has to be boiled thoroughly, and then cooked a *second * time (preferably in bacon fat) to to make it edible.
That got me wondering, as I often do, about the oddness of humans, and what one will do for a meal in a fix; how many folks got sick/died before they figured out the magical, cook once/cook again method?

I was never quite sure of the pronounciation - keep in mind, the mountain relatives speak a dialect of English that most would say requires subtitles for understanding.

Subsequent research on my part reveals that “salad” is a valid alternate term/spelling/pronounciation, but the more correct term is “sallet”, apparently an old word refering to cooked, as opposed to raw, greens. Since poke requires cooking, one would eat it as a sallet and not as a salad. Although, being an old word with very limited use, and given the similarity to “salad”, it’s not surprising how “poke salad” as a term came to be.

I haven’t encountered anyone who gets to anal over the terminology, so probably doesn’t matter much. Those who eat it know what you mean.

Other foods requiring extensive processing include acorns - also a “boil once and again” food - which were once a staple in some areas of North America and long a survival food in Europe, and olives. I mean, who was the first to think of marinating those hard, bitter fruits in brine for months to make them edible? And isn’t taro toxic when raw? That’s another common food requiring extensive processing, used extensively in the Pacific islands. I believe some folks used to eat cycads, too. Same problems - toxic until processed/cooked a lot/fermented/whatever.

I think, perhaps, some of this came from being so desparately hungry it was eat the weeds or start eating each other - raw, a lot of this stuff is probably really bitter or sour so the boiling was an attempt to make it palatable enough to get down without gagging. At some point, the starving figured out how much to boil it to keep it from coming back up. Since it works with a lot of toxic-in-the-raw plants using it with new plants probably is one of the first ideas folks come up with.

The opening recitation from “Poke Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White:

“If some of y’all never been down south too much,
I’m gonna tell you a little about this so that you’ll
Understand what I’m talkin’ about …
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods,
And in the field … looks somethin like a turnip green,
And everybody calls it poke salad … poke 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.”

Nitpick: the song is titled “Polk Salad Annie.” Of all the possible spelling variants, “polk salad” gets by far the most Google hits, although the results are probably massively skewed by the song title. According to legend, the “polk” spelling comes from James Knox Polk’s presidential campaign, when his supporters wore sprigs of pokeweed in their lapels as a pun on his name.

Aaaaggghhh! Now I’ve got that damned song stuck in my head!

Polk salad Annie
The gator’s got your granny (chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp!)


Yeah, I had the tune going through my head while I was eating it.

Poke Salad Annie, gater gotcho granny…

That must have been in the back of my mind, because when I was very young, one of my older sisters had that on a 45, and I’m sure I saw the title on that. But my goodness, it’s been years!

Oops, too late.

My mom used to make it ocassionaly. One thing that kind of made up for the double cooking process was, it was free. We’d be driving down some rural road, and my Mom would make Daddy pull over if she spotted some growing wild, then me and my sister would get out and pick it.

The “poke” goes w-a-y back, the 1600’s. So, it’s not “Polk” salad or any variation of that.

And, yes, various spellings over the years were from speech, so you get various spellings. Salad, sallet, salid, etc.

The green is related to the “callaloo” (various spellings) from Jamaica. Funny, but I just had a chicken breast stuffed with “callaloo” on Saturday night in Cleveland. In a Jamaican restaurant.

Huh. Interesting - “English” is such an odd language. Here’s what I think of when a sallet comes to mind:


  • Tamerlane

Very familiar with that stuff, would never eat it. Is something you see crazy folk picking along I-65.

We always believed you haven’t successfully lived into Spring, until you cleansed the system with sassafras tea, and that first ‘bait of poke sallet’…

There was a local cannery here that canned poke every year. I don’t think they do anymore. Families made extra spending money by staking out picking rights, and filling the back of their pickups with the greens, then hauling to a central dropoff. Seems like they were paid 10 to 15 cents a pound, when I knew of it. Semi trailers full would go to the cannery daily. We always heard stories of snakes and rats being amongst the greens when they were dumped on the cannery floor for sorting, which I never understood, as the stalks were picked by individuals, not machines.

The plants grow best in disturbed ground, ditches, right of ways, around bulldozed tree & burned brushpile areas and barnyards. I have known of people who planted a few seeds and got them to grow, but not in a regular garden.

Young shoots, I’ve eaten lightly blanched. A little larger, go for the boil twice, then cook with bacon grease, or scramble with eggs method. Medium stalks can be cut up like okra, and fried the same.

We knew better than to eat it raw, or include the roots.
Berries are great fun to use as face and body paint when you’re a kid.

Hasn’t killed me in 52 years, but YMMV.

It grows real fine in my garden… not that I want it there. I don’t eat cooked greens. I have never liked them,not spinach collards dandelions or poke/polk. I did like pickled polk stalks when I was younger, a friend of my grandmother canned them every spring. I have heard you can dye with the berries but the damn birds eat them before I can pick them (and they then deposit them on my windsheild yuck)