Ever heard of pokeweed? No? How about poke salad, poke sallit, cancer-root, cancer jalap, inkberry, pigeon berry, pocan, poke root, pokeberry, reujin d ours, sekerciboyaci, skoke, yoshu-yama-gobo, or yyamilin? These are all names for the same plant: Phytolacca americana.
The abundance of names alone indicates that the perennial plant was once easily identifiable to foragers all over the world. As a native to North and South America, East Asia, and New Zealand, it is found along woodland margins, in damp clearings of rich soil, and along roadsides. A stout, erect stalk can tower by the end of the growing season a good ten feet over the earth, widening into smooth branching shoots weighed down with deep purple berries.
The wild plant has almost as many uses as it does names. In the spring, the young shoots can be boiled for a dish similar to asparagus in looks and spinach in taste. The large, fleshy root can be sliced and dried for use as an alternative medicine (touted as an anti-inflammatory, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic, it has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years to treat swollen glands, bronchitis, and other immune system deficiency diseases). Stock from boiled root can be used as a soap substitute, as it is rich in saponin (a natural detergent). The berries, while poisonous raw, produce a beautiful red ink and dye.
If you've been around long enough to hear the song "Poke Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White (covered by Elvis) you might've tasted it. Today, however, the making of poke salad falls into the realm of lost culinary arts. Many authorities advise—over-cautiously, in my opinion—against consumption of any part of the plant (as the roots, berries, and older shoots and leaves contain a strong poison). As a result, any would-be forager without a grandmother to hand down a poke salad recipe is likely to pass on the spring treat.
When asked, my grandmothers' response was not encouraging. "Isn't it a green thing that grows in the spring?" she asked. "My sister used to love it, but I never had anything to do with it."
Thus ended my experience with the plant until several days ago, when a friend arrived to work with a carefully wrapped "surprise." After explaining that it was the tender young shoot of a poke stalk, she agreed take me foraging the next day. When we crouched armed with knives and paper bags at the hunting grounds (the exact location of which I have been forbidden to disclose), we managed to cut a few pounds of the stuff within minutes.
Below is the recipe I used to prepare my first poke salad. Now that I've got a gathering spot, I'll happily welcome more.
Boil 1 pound short, tender poke stalks with leaves (stalks are edible until they reach about 9 inches in height or begin to turn purple; at that point beware of poisoning) for 3-5 minutes. Drain water, refill pot, and boil again. Discard water; boil again if stalks are on the larger side, as boiling reduces toxicity.
In a large pan, fry 6-8 slices of bacon. When done, remove bacon and add poke stalks to sizzling fat. Sauté for 2-3 minutes or until hot through. Serve hot with bacon and cornbread.