In April, 2000, the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas processed its last batch of “poke sallet” greens.
John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bringing it to our buying locations.”
Poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, but Williams mentioned that one of the best markets for canned poke was southern California due to the Oakies.
Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”
“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”
Much like ramps, poke salad was one of the first edible wild herbs to appear, giving a much-needed alternative to the sustenance beans, cornbread, and salt pork diet of winter.
The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic, phytolaccatoxin. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious.
Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem, and trim. Bring to a boil in salt water. Drain, rinse, and bring back to simmer in water with oil, a slit hot pepper pod, and a big pinch of sugar.
Drain and use much as you would spinach. Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette. Or a quiche.