Polk salad Annie (gators got your granny)

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Jan Bennett, poke sallet queen

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Luisa Porter

Some of you all never been down South too much…
I’m gonna tell you a little story, so you’ll understand what I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
and it looks something like a turnip green.*

When Coty Bennett declared his mother the poke sallet queen, I took out my notebook and wrote down her number. Coty, a nurseryman at Toxey Haas’ Nativ Nurseries, is not one given to hyperbole, and as a devotee of Southern soul food cooking, poke sallet (aka poke salad, pokeweed or pokeberry) was high on my culinary bucket list.

Coty and I had come upon a robust specimen growing in front of one of the nursery’s greenhouses. The 8-to-10-foot-tall weed with its deep red stalk, green lance-shaped leaves and purple berries is ubiquitous in the Southern landscape. Poke sallet experts say the plant resists cultivation.

“You never know when it’s going to come up; you never know where it’s going to come up,” Coty’s mother, Jan, will tell me later. “If you want it to come up, forget it.”

Earlier in the spring, I had been driving with Eddie Johnson, a man I work with, when we passed mature pokeweed growing amid the ruins of a dying post oak. Excited, Eddie rolled down his window for a better look.

“That’s what my grandma used to cook us all the time,” he said. “If you get the right person to prepare it with a homemade biscuit or hoecake on top, you can’t beat that, I promise you. It’s a full meal, plus it cleans your system out. It don’t get no better than that.”

And then there are those who say the plant is poisonous. Well, yes and no. Stay away from the berries unless you are tinting dye or, as soldiers in the Civil War were said to have done, making ink. Later in this issue, herbalist Lindsay Wilson discusses pokeweed’s surprising medicinal properties.

As instructed, I met Bennett at the Dollar General in Kilmichael and then followed her through a maze of back roads, winding through cutover timberlands and scrub pine forests, to Sugarhill Road, somewhere southwest of Winona.

Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings to pick 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.*

“Come on in,” Bennett said, as she led me up the walkway to her modular home. “If we can stand it all the time, you can stand it a little while.”

If Bennett’s energy level can be attributed to pokeweed, researchers would do well to give it more scrutiny.

“I’ve eat it all my life,” Bennett, 57, said. “Daddy’s mama, Mamaw Grace, got me started. I just love the taste of it.”

Even though poke sallet is commonly foraged in early spring, Jan had, in late November, scavenged enough leaves for a sampling — from a plant with its own name, no less.

“Esther Pearl, she keeps coming back. She gets 8-feet tall in that tractor shed,” Bennett said. “We call her that for Esther in the Bible who kept coming back to the king.”

Spread out on Jan’s kitchen counter amid the clutter of jars of homemade pickles, wall-to-wall spice racks, cookbooks, letters and a coffee maker were the ingredients for a mess of poke sallet. This included a stack of leaves from Esther Pearl, butter, vegetable oil and eggs.

The key to cooking poke sallet, said Jan, is the washing of the greens, which includes a cleaning rinse followed by three hot, saltwater rinses.

When I asked about the plant’s toxicity, Jan smiled.

“We ain’t dead yet,” she said.

After cooking the leaves in a small amount of water and butter, Bennett folded in three eggs. The cooking phase lasted about 10 minutes. She spooned the contents of the skillet onto two plates.

It’s not what I expected. The taste and texture are delicate, faintly like spinach. It’s delicious. We ate standing in front of the stove. After a few bites, Bennett asked if I wanted more. I smiled and handed her my plate.  

*“Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White


JAN BENNETT’S POKE SALLET

About 2 gallons of leaves (best when gathered in early spring)
2 tablespoons butter
Pinch of sugar
Bacon or bacon bits
Three eggs

To prepare leaves:

• Strip leaves from central stem and wash in salt-water bath. Drain.
• Cook leaves in salt water until dark. Strain.
• Cover with salt water and boil briefly but don’t stir. Strain and repeat.

For poke sallet dish:

• Brown bacon in skillet.
• Add butter.
• When butter is melted, add wet leaves and stir for a few minutes.
• Add beaten eggs, stirring, and cook until eggs are done.