Dangerously Delicious: The Southern Delicacy of Pokeweed Salet
A controversial nefarious weed, more than likely growing wild in your back yard, Pokeweed has been a southern delicacy for centuries. You won’t find this weed on an official list of edible native plants. This wild green comes with a warning label due to its relation to night shade. Caution and attention to detail are important when preparing and cooking Pokeweed.
Due to the toxins from the plant, symptoms can range from mild to lethal if not prepared accurately. There is no official recipe in preparing this leafy green. Most recipes for this precarious dish are handed down orally from past generations. The recipe is a living knowledge that is slowly being forgotten and fading with new generations. But don’t let the warning label scare you off!
Personally, I feel it has a lot of superfluous warnings and misconceptions regarding its poisonous reputation. I’ve known people who grew up consuming Pokeweed and have never became ill or sick eating it. Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas use to can and sell poke salet.
You remember their famous cans of spinach with Popeye on the label? Sadly, in the Spring of 2000, the company could not find enough people to harvest enough of the plant to make it profitable.
Poke Salet even became famous back in the late 60’s with the legendary song, “Poke Salad Annie” written by Tony Joe White. It was released in 1969 and was number 8 on the top billboard.
Other famous artist have released their own version of the song such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and most recently Foo Fighters.
Sometimes referred to as “wild spinach” or “poor man’s spinach, the indigenous herb was described by Henry David Thoreau as one of the most perfect floral emblems in nature and its stems are more beautiful than most flowers. During the Civil War and Great Depression, it was the only thing edible for months at a time. Aside from being poisonous, its association with poverty has also given poke salet a negative connotation. Most folks that ate the feral weed grew up very poor.
Pokeweed can grow to be 8 to 12 feet tall and at its maturity has a thick purple shaded stem and purplish berries. Pokeweed is a major food source for at least 30 species of birds including songbirds, bluebirds, robins, thrushes, mockingbirds and woodpeckers. The berries on the plant are one of the last remaining food sources for birds during the winter months. What may seem as an invasive weed in your gardening landscape, Pokeweed is not the hideous plant that its reputation seems to hold.
Our feathered friends need it to survive the winter months. Just make sure to educate your children about the red berries on the plant! Their beauty is very tempting to pull off the vine and eat. I would caution having this plant in parks, schools, and playgrounds where children frequently play.
That’s “poke salet” not “poke salad”! Pokeweed is sometimes called “poke salet” which sounds like “salad” but the two terms are very different.
The word “salet” is from an old English word meaning “cook greens” and is considered a pot herb. Pot herbs are always cooked and “salad” herbs are eaten raw. Recent research reveals evidence that compounds in pokeweed are antiviral and is being studied for it’s potential against AIDS. Clinical results are also promising in studying the proteins of pokeweed in the treatment of childhood leukemia and ovarian cancer. Old timers have referred to the plant as “cancer root”.
Latest technology is using the red dye from poke berries in the field of solar energy to coat fiber-based solar cells to increase the efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity. Pokeweed was introduced to European settlers by the Native Americans and is still a dietary staple in Appalachian cuisine. Native Americans use the plant not only as a food source, but also used the berries to make ink and dyes to color feathers, garments and their horses. Many documents and letters that were penned during the Civil War were written in pokeberry juice that now reside in museums today. There are celebrations held annually throughout southern communities known as the Poke Salet Festival. Poke salet festivals are held in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky to honor its historical role in southern and Appalachian traditions.
The devil lies within the details. It’s all in how you cook it!
Never, ever, eat raw leaves, berries or the root of the Pokeweed! The toxins are concentrated in the roots, berries and seeds of the plant. They contain an alkaloid known as phytolaccine and a resin known as phytolaccatoxin. The effects of these toxins can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, convulsions and sometimes even death!
Young plants are lower in toxicity and Spring is the best time to harvest the leaves for consumption. Once the plant hits the berry stage, it’s too late to crop.
Michael Wyen is currently working on a ethnobotanical project through his website Plight to Freedom. Michael is studying and comparing the different uses of common plants and weeds to educate the public on how they were historically used by our ancestors.
Michael’s advice to people who would like to add pokeweed to their diet:
- it is important to share that pokeweed is a poisonous plant that must be prepared properly. Only collect young shoots under six inches and avoid any plants with a red stem. The roots and berries are extremely poisonous and can make you sick or worse. If you’re going to eat pokeweed, make sure you have a good recipe to follow. It’s important to boil it, changing the hot water frequently to extract the poisons. Never eat it raw!
Traditionally, poke leaves are gathered and then rinsed in cold water to remove dirt and insects. Once the poke leaves have been washed, they are then transferred to a pot of boiling water. Boil the leaves for about 20 minutes then pour leaves into a sieve. Repeat these steps three times. After the last parboil, prepare your iron skillet with some fatback, salted pork or bacon grease. Saute your greens just like collards or spinach. You can add crushed bacon, green onions, salt and pepper to taste. Your result will taste like spinach with a hint of asparagus. It can also be used in quiche, mixed with your mustard greens or used as a topping for your pizza.
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Pokeweed stalks can also be cooked like asparagus or cut up and rolled in cornmeal and fried like okra. The possibilities are endless with your recipes and best part of it all, IT’S FREE!
To learn more about Pokeweed and it’s many uses, visit Plight to Freedom’s Youtube Channel:
You can also visit Plight To Freedom’s website to learn more about common plants and weeds.