Dozens upon dozens of edible plants grow wild in our region, but only one was ever featured in a hit song. ‘Polk Salad Annie,’ a ditty by a Southern boy named Tony Joe White about the joys of foraged pokeweed shoots, made it to No. 8 on the Billboard charts in 1969. Elvis Presley, another Southern boy who also knew a thing or two about being so poor that you gathered roadside weeds for dinner, also recorded a version.
The record company made the unfortunate move of changing the name from “poke sallet” to “salad”—a misnomer that may have led to more than a few people making themselves very, very ill when they wanted to make like Annie and “pick a mess of polk salad and carry it home in a tote sack.” This name would indicate, after all, that it’s a fine idea to grab a bunch of leaves off any nearby American pokeweed (phytolacca americana) and toss them in a nice vinaigrette. This is easy enough to do—pokeweed grows abundantly throughout the United States, favoring disturbed ground like, oh, the edges of playgrounds and sports fields. As a hardy perennial, in this region pokeweed is available in some harvestable form about nine months of the year.
Unfortunately, every part of the pokeweed plant, from roots to leaves to fruit, is poisonous to varying degrees. Thus a raw poke salad is a very, very bad idea. The original name, sallet, comes from a Middle English term referring to cooked greens, and it turns out that boiling young leaves or shoots of the plant in several changes of water is the essential step that removes the poisonous compounds. The operative toxins are an alkaloid protein called phytolaccin and two saponins, phytolaccotoxin and phytolaccigenin—substances stern enough to land pokeweed a page in Ramesh C. Gupta’s “Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents.” Those unfortunate enough to ingest raw or improperly prepared pokeweed can expect stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and—in extreme cases—death from respiratory failure.
So how do you cook this stuff—and why would you want to?
Poke is a cherished traditional food in the South, and even many non-Southerners find it very tasty. Some venerable preparations involve gathering and boiling the leaves, but the safest way to enjoy poke is in the springtime. There is a brief window during which poke is pretty much entirely not poisonous, when the plant’s emerging shoots first rise up from the large underground taproot. (The roots, by the way, are the very most poisonous part of the plant, so it’s important to cut poke shoots off above ground to make sure no bit of root comes along with your dinner vegetable.) Poke shoots, boiled and then briefly sauteed, really are uniquely delectable. Like asparagus, only ornery, is the best way I can think the describe the flavor.
There is rather a lot of debate about how tall the shoots can grow before becoming unsafe to harvest, and whether or not red streaks on the stalk indicate the presence of toxins. I have eaten rather a lot of poke, and am still here to tell the tale; my personal rule is to harvest shoots whose leaves are still tightly furled and that are no taller than 8 inches.
The boiling step in poke preparation is no joke—you are not only leaching out the aforementioned actively poisonous compounds, but also removing oxalic acid. This is another fun chemical that is in many leafy greens, including spinach, but in pokeweed oxalic acid occurs in toxically high levels. A friend who grew up in rural Kentucky once told me about the syndrome called “poke mouth” wherein folks eating insufficiently boiled poke, or even consuming sufficiently boiled poke too frequently, develop a telltale ring of sores around their mouths from the oxalic acid. (Learn from my traumatic experience: Do not Google the term “poke mouth.”)
There have been a few Baltimore chefs, like Winston Blick at Clementine, who have tried playing around with poke on their restaurant menus. But poke prep at home is pretty straightforward. Get two big pots of water to a hard, rolling boil at the same time (you can salt it if you like). Plunge the poke into the first pot and boil two minutes, until the water tinges a lovely rose red. Remove and plunge into the second, fully boiling pot for another two minutes. The second boil’s water can be pinkish, but if it turns anything approaching red, your poke shoots are probably too mature to eat safely. You can boil in a third bath, in that case. Remove and drain, but do not shock (put in cold water). Then saute in a little bacon fat or butter, and enjoy.
Finding poke for yourself is pretty much a DIY project. No piles of poke shoots for sale at the farmers market, that’s for sure. My recommendation would be to make that first pokeweed foray with a knowledgeable forager—Foragers of Baltimore (meetup.com/Foragers-of-Baltimore) is a great place to connect with some. You’ll learn firsthand how to recognize poke in all its many forms, and maybe even get to gather and cook some up with those who’ve done it before and have lived to sing the song . . .
If some of y’all never been down South too much,
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you’ll understand what I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
Looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it polk salad.
Polk . . . kuh . . . salad . . . UNGH!