Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Fine Mess

Back in the late 'Sixties a new song came on the radio waves, and it really stood out in a year whose number one hit was "Sugar, ah honey honey, you are my candy GIRL, and you got me wanting you." It was a cool song. It was raw. It was Southern. It was Poke Salad Annie.

Poke Salad Annie was a piece of work, she was. Gators got her granny. Everybody said it was a shame 'cause her mama was a-workin' on a chain gang. She didn't have a lot going for her but she was mean enough to make the gators look tame, and also she ate poke salad.  It's a plant. She'd go down and pick her a mess of it. "Mess" is a unit of poke salad.

Because of that song, poke salad was mythic to me as I grew up in the heat and humidity of northern Virginia and imagined somewhere even hotter and cruddier, with gators. Tony Joe White sang the song and he growled and chomped his way through it, and when everyone else was singing Build Me Up Buttercup, he was a tonic.


So a while back when I saw a new plant in my yard that I definitely did not plant, and asked my niece the Plant Professor what it was, and she said it was pokeweed, I didn't believe it. Naww, I drawled appropriately. We don't have no pokeweed 'round these parts.

"You do now," she said. "You don't want it though. It's invasive."

Okay, but I kinda wanted to see how it turned out. Weeds grow where they aren't wanted, so maybe this one would give up if I acted like I wanted it. Note: plants do not respond to reverse psychology. It was cool-looking though. Bright green, pretty purple berries, and a certain enthusiasm. I figured I'd wait it out and nip it the next year.

Lawsa mercy. Next year it had gotten its feet under it. It was massive. It would give an unemployed lumberjack a woodie. (That's what lumberjacks get.)

Pokeweed, as it happens, is spectacularly poisonous. You can only eat the stems and leaves and you need to bile it up and serve it with fatback, which, being concentrated pig deliciousness, is worth dying for. If you're not Poke Salad Annie, you're not mean enough to try it. The roots will kill you retroactively and a single berry will tidily drop a kid in a couple hours. The bigger it is, the harder it'll kill you.

In the years since I saw that first plant, pokeweed has shown up everywhere in town, and there are some hundred or so of the little contenders poking up in my garden. Which is a problem, because a lot of kids roam through this yard, and some of them we really like.

So now, belatedly, I'm pulling them out as fast as I spot them. No mercy. I'm gonna pick me a mess of 'em. Wretched, spiteful, straight-razor-totin' woman.

37 comments:

  1. I seem to remember from my days of going on herb walks that pokeweed leaves are only dangerous to eat after a certain point.... I think they're edible when they're shoots, but poisonous when they get berries, or some such. But for me, any "food item" that requires a codicil is not something I would want to eat ever. That's why I won't eat rhubarb: "The stems are poisonous, but not the leaves.... But the leaves are bitter, so you need a lot of sugar to drown that out...." Fuck that. Any plant that goes to so much trouble to not be eaten, I will just humor it and let it be.

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    1. Rhubarb stems are EDIBLE, it's the leaves that are poisonous. The stems do need to be cooked, in a small amount of water with sugar added.

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    2. Well, see, it's a good thing I stay away from the damned things!

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    3. Young pokeweed leaves are edible IF boiled in three or more changes of water. The mature leaves, roots, and berries are poisonous no matter how they're prepared.

      Murr's right about pokeweed being invasive. It grows with abandon here in Pennsylvania.

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    4. Hey! I know! Let's make some Stuffed Puffer Fish with Death Cap Mushrooms and Poke Garnish!

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  2. Knowing how invasive it is, and how poisonous, I would have yanked it out right away.
    I vaguely remember somebody singing about "gator got her granny" on the radio here many moons ago, but the other stuff, sugar sugar and buttercup are still getting occasional air time on the classic easy listening station.

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    1. I really don't want to put down Build Me Up Buttercup. It's a classic. You start singing that and everyone will join in.

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  3. ¥ou can only eat it at certain times of the year too. I love it and when we'd visit my Grandmother in Oklahoma she'd cook me some if it was in season, but not fatback.

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  4. Here in Georgia, we are very familiar with "poke sallet" or maybe it's "poke sallat" -- I haven't had many occasions to spell it. In my grandmother's day, people waited anxiously for it to reach the right stage of immaturity, boiled it with some form of pork fat, and then ate a lot of it. The warning was to never eat it when it had matured, only when the leaves were young and tender. My mother followed suit, but I have never cooked it myself. There's still a lot of it around, and the thought always races through my head that I should know how to absolutely identify right phase for readiness. I don't know.

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    1. Yeah, it's called poke sallet. I wonder if that comes from "salad" or it's the other way around. I think, though, you could manage without learning the readiness stage by avoiding it altogether.

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    2. Um, when I lived in Richmond, VA and worked part-time in a hospital...the big 'country girls' who worked there always pronounced it either "sall-it" or "sell-it", and I thought it was just a redneck affectation. Apparently not.

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  5. Well? Ya gonna eat 'em or not?

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    1. You'd have to boil the young leaves in three changes of water, at least. Too much work for what is essentially survival food, in my opinion. If someone wants greens, there's plenty of kale and collard greens at the supermarket.

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    2. Exactly! If I have to go to that much trouble just to make something "edible" (I notice that the qualifier "delicious" never comes up in conjunction with pokeweed.), I'd rather buy some broccoli rabe or swiss chard or kale, and saute that with garlic, hot pepper, and oil without all that fuss.

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    3. Jono, I'm going to have some celebratory poke salad right after my first jump from an airplane.

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    4. What exactly are collard greens?What would be the equivalent here in Aus I wonder?

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    5. Mmm, collard greens. Taste a bit like turnip greens. I had a friend named Diane Collard who married someone named Green and they hyphenated their names even though they didn't ordinarily endorse that sort of thing. I would've too.

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  6. As a gardener I knew a little about this plant but your description makes it memorable.

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    1. I just looked out the window and I can already see the ones I missed--from fifty feet away.

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  7. Woman, you are having too much fun with these photographic illustrations :)

    Don't stop, by the way.

    I don't eat anything that doesn't come from a store or market. And even some of that, I don't eat.

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  8. Poke grows so dramatically fast that its window of opportunity to be harvested is essentialy one day. Kinda like asparagus. The myth of needing to cook it in numerous changes of water to detoxify it is , a myth. All that serves to do is wash away any food value poke has to begin with. I think the whole "changes of water" thing really means wash the dirt off your greens in a few changes of water in your basin. I could be wrong. Then again, here I am, none the worse for wear, having eaten a handful of berries as an adult to see what would happen (nothing), and as a kid in New Jersey, I slathered myself with the berry ink for warpaint. Poke is a gorgeous, colorful huge plant, bird attractive, and if you ever need warpaint...

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    1. A cousin of mine made ink by crushing the berries. I can't remember if we could write with it or not, but I do know he's lived 60 years since then and is still kicking.

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    2. I'm not ruling out that I might need warpaint one day, but eating a HANDFUL OF BERRIES AS AN ADULT TO SEE WHAT WOULD HAPPEN? Oh, sugar. Ah, honey honey.

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    3. You wouldn't catch me eating a blowfish. No way ;)

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  9. The birds! The birds love the berries! So what if it's poisonous? Why would you be tempted to eat it? Although I did once eat the tender young shoots because Ewell Gibbons (was that his name?) said I could. Nowadays, I just pull it out if it's in my garden in a bad place, ignore it and leave it for the birds everywhere else.

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    1. Oh, it's the kids thing. Now that you mention it, I do like a lot more (individual) birds than kids though. It's probably not even a thing. I've had deadly nightshade growing for years and haven't tempted a youngster with it once.

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  10. Why is it the plants with Triffid tendencies which thrive? Some days it is a reminder that life just isn't fair. And some days I sulk about that. Only some days though.

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    1. Life isn't fair. I get a kick out of the pretzeled thought process some religious people go through to make sense of life's unfairness. On the other hand, I got mine...

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  11. I suppose most places have some plant(s) that is held up as a warning to kiddies. Like oysters.I never remember whether they should or should not have an R in the month.And anyway, that's only for northern hemisphere, isn't it? I don't like oysters so I always tell my man he can have the oysters and I'll have the pleasure...

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  12. Mine is the size of a small tree with hanging gardens of berries and the birds are ploughing through them and pooping purple. No kids in my uptight condo development, but perhaps I could feed the plant to some of the older grumblies.

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