Sunday, August 12, 2007
Jennifer Saylor, Freelance Writer
Southbound #1: Poke Sallet
DAMN it’s hot. Still hot. Close to setting records, lately. It’s a fiery 88 degrees F even around 5PM, and in the low 90s in the midafternoon. Yesterday a friend who couldn’t take the heat anymore asked to borrow my old AC window unit so she could sleep at night.
Today I dug up a box fan for my bedroom and last night I kept an ice pack in my bed.
During summer my mind tends to turn to things Southern even more than usual. Because heat and the South just go together. I’d like to start a new regular blog series I’ll call Southbound, where I write periodically about something distinctly Southern. I’m open to ideas if y’all have any requests or suggestions.
And I’d like to start with poke sallet.
Poke (or pokeweed) is a shamelessly common weed native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand. It grows everywhere here in WNC. Its stalks are succulent and purple-pink, and it grows hanging bunches of green berries that turn dark when ripe. It can grow to be around ten feet tall, but I usually see it a few feet high.
It’s common as hell, poke. You’ve probably seen it.
Here in the American South (and the Southwest too) people cook and eat the leaves of young poke plants (taller, older ones are too tough). The plant is poisonous, though, and you’ve got to boil the leaves three times, discarding the water each time. When finished, the dish is called a mess* of poke sallet *, and typically you flavor it with salt, pepper and animal fat (usually in the form of fatback, a ham hock or bacon grease). Some add sugar, too. This makes a spinach-like cooked green not unlike collards, another Southern favorite (one I enjoyed quite recently in Savannah).
* in my experience, a “mess” is a lot of something edible you cooked and/or collected; you can have a mess of beans or a mess of pottage
* near as I can tell, “sallet” is an old-timey word imported from Middle French to Middle English from the Old French word salade, or salad
Louisiana even has a Poke Salad Festival.
Elvis Presley, who started out life as a poor kid from Mississippi, probably ate poke. At least he sang about it in his cover of Tony Joe White’s “Polk [sic] Salad [sic] Annie,” which should probably be called “Poke Sallet Annie,” and would have been called that if Nashville had ever had a proper copy editor. I’ve also seen this song called “Pork Salad Annie.” It’s poke, people, not pork (and sallet, not salad, but never mind). In the beginning of the song, Elvis even explains what poke is:
Some of y’all never been down south too much, I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this, so you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and in the fields and it looks something like a turnip green and everybody calls it poke salad…
I don’t think poke looks much like turnip greens. But “Polk Salad Annie” is still my favorite Elvis song.
Here’s a sweaty, 35-year-old Elvis in a trademark white sequined jumpsuit, doing kung-fu Elvis poses and performing “Polk Salad Annie.” He’s still slim and incredibly sexy, and also fairly stoned on something, prone to insert weird vamps and puts the microphone into his mouth. This video is sad and weird and really kind of amazing.
Annie was a “wretched, spiteful, straight-razor totin’ woman.” Her mama worked on the chain gang, her daddy was lazy, and her brothers weren’t good for anything except “stealin’ watermelons outta my truck patch.” And her granny? Just listen.
Elvis Presley, Polk Salad Annie, 1970 (Go HERE to watch the video)
If you don’t feel up to picking and cooking tender specimens of a poisonous weed, or if you live somewhere where poke doesn’t grow, here’s another Southern-style salad recipe that involves boiling water, sugar and veggies. It’s cheap and simple and involves no cooking and only 4 ingredients:
Adrienne’s Cucumber Salad
* cucumbers, thinly sliced
* 1 small white onion, thinly sliced
* 1 cup white vinegar
* 1/2 cup water
* 3/4 cup white sugar
* 1 tablespoon dried dill, or to taste
Toss together the cucumbers and onion in a large bowl. Combine the vinegar, water and sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, and pour over the cucumber and onions. Stir in dill, cover, and refrigerate until cold. This can also be eaten at room temperature, but be sure to allow the cucumbers to marinate for at least 1 hour.
I have some of this stuff in my fridge right now, and let me tell you, it is delicious on a hot summer day no matter where you live. I don’t use the dill because I have none on hand at present, so if you don’t either, don’t let it keep you from peeling you some garden cucumbers and making yourself some cuke salad.
Happy summer, y’all.