Looks somethin' like a turnip green, and everybody calls it polk salad
October 20, 2019 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Despite the fact that the kudzu-like Phytolacca americana (Wikipedia) sprouts up all across North America, poke sallet, a dish made from the plant’s slightly-less-toxic leaves, is a regional thing, popular only to Appalachia and the American South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to cook out their toxins, and, as aficionados will tell you, it’s well worth the extra effort. But if pokeweed is so toxic (DoveMed), why did people start eating it in the first place? In a word, poke sallet is survival food. (Saveur)

How to Identify, Harvest, and Prepare Pokeweed and Poke Sallet (Delishably)
Pokeweed can be found throughout the majority of the Continental United States but is far more prevalent in the central and eastern states of the South. It is a poisonous weed, related to nightshade, but if prepared for consumption correctly, it is actually considered a delicacy by many denizens of the rural United States. In fact, in its cooked form, pokeweed is so popular that many states, especially those in the South, hold yearly (Harlan County, Kentucky) festivals (Arab, Alabama) in the early spring to commemorate it.

The cooked version of this weed is properly referred to as "poke sallet," but like with so many traditions that have survived via word of mouth, the pronunciation can often be found altered, most commonly to "poke salad." You might also see it spelled "polk salad" or "polk sallet." The "polk" spelling was popularized by a 1968 country/pop song by Tony Joe White called "Polk Salad Annie."
And as noted in the Saveur article, Elvis covered that song, as seen here in Las Vegas in 1970.
posted by filthy light thief (22 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Final link: WebMD's brief and contradictory article, which states
Pokeweed is a plant. The berry and root are used as medicine.

Pokeweed is UNSAFE to use.
Then goes on to list ailments that pokeweed is used to treat.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 PM on October 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Now I have learned the root meaning of catharsis. Thanks?
posted by sjswitzer at 9:59 PM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sometimes people bring in pokeweed to our store to ask A) what is this, it’s all over my yard! B) can I eat it? And C) how do I get rid of it? We can’t suggest medicinal uses for some pretty obvious liability reasons, so we always say pokeweed, a non-edible weed with interesting history, look it up, but my favorite response was from this one lady who was- oh it’s nice to know the name, no I don’t need any sprays I’m not killing it I like it in my garden I just wanted to know what it was.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:23 PM on October 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Also, pokeweed tree!
Because it is derived from herbaceous ancestors, its trunk consists of anomalous secondary thickening rather than true wood.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:39 PM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, all children of the south know that you can make die/paint with poke berries that will get everywhere, not wash out, and drive your mom crazy.
posted by os tuberoes at 1:15 AM on October 21, 2019 [14 favorites]

I'm glad to see this - I thought that I was the last generation to eat it. Still and all, for my money you can keep the poke. I'd much rather have the nutty rich goodness of lambsquarters cooked up with a little vinegar and onion or burdock root generally.
posted by Tchad at 3:07 AM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

Now I have learned the root meaning of catharsis.

Holy moly. Im gonna use catharsis so much more and so much more specifically now. Today's meetings are gonna be GREAT!! (and cathartic)
posted by chasles at 5:18 AM on October 21, 2019

Apparently you used to be able to buy cans of poke sallet.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:48 AM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you're going to eat poke weed, it needs to be harvested as it first starts popping up out of the ground - maybe 1-2 feet tall. They have less toxicity at this point. I wouldn't fool with it when it reaches the stage where you can see berries.
posted by bwvol at 5:55 AM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Love the song! Back in high school a friend of listened to it and found the “gators got your granny” line so funny he would break into uncontrollable giggles whenever he heard it. Especially if he was stoned (which was much of the time).
posted by TedW at 6:27 AM on October 21, 2019

When my grandfather was a boy in the country, he would go out and pick this from around fenceposts, then bring it back to his mother to cook.

I remember getting in a strangely bitter argument with my mother about whether it was properly called "pork salad" or "poke sallet." She said it was the second, and she was right, of course, but I don't think that's why she was so angry at me. I think I was just young and being too damn much because, well, I had never been in a place where I had to pick poke sallet.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:00 AM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pokeweed has for a while now been on my list to prepare and eat. I tend not to recognize it growing until it's too big to harvest, though. I'd always thought it was more a matter of leaf toughness than increased toxicity, but I can see both being issues.

BBC Travel ran an article in March about eating pokeweed. I was quite pleased but unsurprised to see one of our Charlotte, NC local chefs mentioned, Clark Barlowe. Just last month, he posted on Facebook about using the berry's juice in ice creams and sauces, and how to prepare it for the purpose.

Chef Barlowe does some really cool stuff with all sorts of local ingredients, especially things he's foraged. I wish I'd heard about his racoon sausage in time to try it. We're going to miss him when he moves to the Pacific Northwest.
posted by phrits at 7:36 AM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

IME, it needs to be way shorter than 1-2 feet, more like 2-3 inches. I've heard you need to catch it as sprouts before the stem turns pink.

I once tried leaves from small plants with maybe 2-3 leaves but the stems were pink, and even after boiling in three changes of water, it still made me ill. Poke salad is not an appealing prospect unless that's the first green thing you've had to eat in months.
posted by momus_window at 8:48 AM on October 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in my teens, and I swear she could see this stuff from miles away and would pull over to the side of the road to pick it. Also, until I read this article, I thought it was "polk salad."
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:52 AM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

The actual root meaning of catharsis is ritual purification, but maybe you all work at some really New-Agey shops...
posted by praemunire at 11:17 AM on October 21, 2019

posted by non canadian guy at 11:18 AM on October 21, 2019

Chomp chomp chomp
posted by msalt at 2:54 PM on October 21, 2019

The actual root meaning of catharsis is ritual purification, but maybe you all work at some really New-Agey shops... nah just read the article and clicked on the carthasis Wikipedia link. Spoiler its extreme pooping.
posted by chasles at 5:27 PM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Still wondering what the cooked stuff looks and tastes like. Also, origins of the word sallet.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:56 PM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

why did people start eating it in the first place?

The answer to this question is usually "starvation".
posted by nnethercote at 9:50 PM on October 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

...origins of the word sallet
It is how the word salad sounds in an Appalachian/Southern accent (in some areas). It is a point of grumpiness for me because it is the first word I remember being used to accent shame as a child - an aunt of mine was always made fun of because she didn't correct the way she said it. Even today I will over-pronounce the a's, almost curl my tongue over my front teeth and hit that d HARD. But unguarded I will totally come out somewhere around "sallit".
posted by Tchad at 5:22 AM on October 22, 2019

Cool! I always thought of these as Dr. Seuss plants when I moved to the mid-Atlantic - the plant itself looks really cool. I had heard of pokeweed but never bothered looking it up.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:56 AM on October 23, 2019

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