There’s nothing quite like food that’s a little scary. Some people won’t eat pokeweed, poke salad, or poke sallit, because they fear it. A fair amount of wild food is like that, safe enough if you know what you’re doing, but if you don’t you shouldn’t be cooking it for supper. Poke is potentially one of the worst in that sense, but it’s also one of the easiest wild foods to learn and enjoy. There’s a wide margin of safety for picking poke and you can measure it literally with a yardstick. Snap off the tender stalks and leaves when they are from six inches to a foot and a half high. Don’t eat them raw and don’t eat any other part of the plant. Mature poke plants are toxic, and the roots are deadly at any age. Fortunately, the roots of poke are so deeply buried that even a plow has trouble taking them out, and you’ll have no problem avoiding the hostile part of the plant in the Spring. It’s a favored vegetable in the South for about three weeks every year, and then the season is over.
Poke sallit lives for several years in the same location, much like asparagus, and it’s a common roadside plant and resident of fencerows. If you live in the country you’ll have no trouble spotting the mature plants with their forking branches and thick green leaves. In late summer they bear long grapelike clusters of purple berries that every country boy knows should never be tasted — but which also make excellent ammunition for games of berry tag. The juice is nearly permanent, yielding slowly to the cleaning efforts of parents, but is still a good enough ink for tree house memos and even the woodworking snaplines of pioneers.
In Spring, when the leaves have begun to leaf out and the ground is warm, look for the white dead stalks of last year’s poke thickets and part the grass and weeds around them to find the first new stalks of the year. Poke is best when about eight inches high, just tall enough for the leaves to begin spreading out, but it’s edible at a foot and a half. Just take the last eight inches of the plant. A thicket will yield several pickings over the course of a month, but there’s so much poke sallit in this country that in a couple of weeks you’ll have had your fill.
When cooking poke, clean and chop the leaves and stalks into pieces about three inches long, fill a pot about half full loosely and cover the herb with water and a little salt. Boil it for about six minutes, drain the water off and add fresh salt water in the same amount, and boil it again. Some people boil it three times, but I only boil it twice and I’m still here. I figure if you boil anything three times you’ve taken out most of what’s good.
Poke is one of those vegetables that’s good all by itself, with much of the texture of asparagus but a little bit of acrid tang to go along. Salt and butter are the only spices it needs. The mistake I make sometimes is cooking too much in a pot. You need more water than poke to take the bitter quality down to a pleasant level.