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POKE SALLET

by Bob Bowman

"There isn't a better country dish in East Texas."
Bob Bowman

The other night at a friend's lakehouse, the sun had slipped beyond the horizon, a breeze began whipping the tops of the pine trees, and the gang's conversation turned to grave national issues.

* Will George W. Bush bring Texas barbecue to the White House?

* Where can you find a good mess of poke sallet?

After about two minutes, we concluded we knew as much about poke sallet as politics -- mostly because we're in our sixties, and our generation doesn't appreciate poke sallet with the same intensity as our parents and grandparents.

It's a shame, too, because poke sallet -- sometimes called poke weed, scoke, inkberry or gorget -- is considered one of spring's wild delicacies.

It's a large handsome plant that grows as tall as five feet, usually in disturbed soil. That's why you're likely to find it in places like cowpens, gardens, and anyplace else the Texas Agriculture Commissioner has made a speech.

In fact, that's how the lakehouse gang turned to the subject of poke sallet.

A wad of plants was growing in a new flowerbed not far from the back porch. Our lakehouse host said the flowerbed was where an old cowpen once stood.

I've heard about the culinary delights of poke sallet since I was a youngster, but for a long time I called it poke "salad." My mother probably thought I had a speech impediment.

Marie Carnes of Lufkin who was taught by her mother how to prepare poke sallet, swears by its medicial properties as well as its taste. "Poke sallet is the best spring tonic you can find; it gets your blood going," she said.

Each year, she and her husband Mack, an auctioneer, start scouring the countryside around Lufkin for the iron-rich plant.

Marie prefers young plants or the tips of older plants. "If a plant is big, say knee-high, it's likely to be tough and bitter," she said.

She washes the greens thoroughly, adds a little salt, and cooks the greens until they're tender. She then pours off the juice, adds more water along with salt and pepper, and cooks the batch again.

She pours off the juice a second time, adds more water, throws in some additional seasonings such as bacon grease or pieces of pork, and cooks the greens a third time. She occasionally adds a pinch or two of sugar to cut the bitter taste.

"My momma told me you had to cook poke sallet three times or you were liable to get poisoned," said Marie. "I'm not sure that's right, but I'm not about to take a chance."

She serves the greens atop a plateful of scrambled eggs. "There isn't a better country dish in East Texas," she said. "It's a lot like spinach in taste and texture."

While Marie's method is the most accepted method of eating poke sallet, I've also heard of fried poke stalks, poke soup, poke-tuna roll and poke pickles. But I haven't found them on any cafe menu --even in the remotest corner of East Texas.

The lakehouse gang would be delighted to know that a nice wine can be made from pokeberries although some folklore sources contend the berries are poisonous.

The antidote to the poison, I am told, is to drink lots of vinegar and eat about a pound of lard. That doesn't sound too bad. I've eaten worse in some Dallas restaurants.

Despite the poisonous theory, some older folks swear that pokeberry wine is good for rheumatism. I'm tempted to keep the wine theory a secret from the lakehouse gang. They'll do anything to get a cheap glass of liquor--even digging up the flowerbeds.


by Bob Bowman
All Things Historical
May 6, 2001 Column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Association and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore.)

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