American Pokeweed: How to Cook and Prepare Poke Salad Safely

Once there were festivals dedicated to it. Elvis made it famous in the song “Polk Salad Annie”. At one time you could even buy it in a can. American pokeweed is a fascinating edible plant with deep roots in the South, and a culinary tradition that deserves to be rediscovered. Confusingly, it’s also a poisonous to humans improperly prepared. Years in the making, today I’ll explain everything you need to know to prepare pokeweed (poke salad) safely. Per usual, I need to thank Sam Thayer. In 2020 we planted poke roots he’d harvested. Without his book the the plants he brought, I wouldn’t have been able to get thick pokeweed shoots to peel, which are the best part of the plant to eat. What is Poke Salad? American pokeweed ( Phytolaca americana ) is a perennial plant native to Eastern North America, The South, and The Midwest. The common name poke salad or poke sallet is derived from the old French word for salad. Historically sallets weren’t raw, but instead referred to cooked greens. The plant is highly poisonous raw, but edible, and delicious when properly prepared. The plant has a history of being used as food, medicine and a coloring by indigenous people long before others ate it. Daniel Moerman writes that the Cherokee crushed the fruit with grapes to make a sweetened drink, and that the shoots and greens were eaten as a food by Mohegan, Malecite, Iroqouis, and undoubtedly many other tribes. For the record, I cannot recommend eating pokeweed berries . Besides being dangerous, the y don’t taste good . If you want to read some striking, real-world accounts of people poisoning themselves by improperly ingesting the plant, read this article. My friend Kayce at Health Primitive shared with me the Algonquin / Powhatan name Puccoon, meaning red dye. She said indigenous people may ferment pokeberries in pumpkins to make a thick coloring used on the body or for war items. Above: common pokeweed native range in North America. Although not on the map, I harvest it in Minnesota. Sam Thayer grows it in Northern Wisconsin. Harvested along fence rows and ditches, poke was, and is seen as a poverty food. But, unlike a block of government cheese, eating pokeweed is far from a punishment. The mild, pleasant grassy flavor of the greens and tender shoots is easy to love. It’s also one of the easiest edible wild plants to harvest in large quantities. The plant entered main-stream vernacular when Elvis wrote the song Polk Salad Annie, which is about a poor woman who collected poke. For many years the plant was so popular that poke greens were sold canned in the South. Allens of Arkansas appears to be the last company to sell the greens. Unfortunately, they discontinued selling canned poke in 2000. Like ramps, there’s even spring festivals dedicated to the plant to this day, like the Harlan County Polk Salad Festival in Kentucky. Sadly, just like canned poke, It’s now a music and arts festival, with no one eating pokeweed. Pokeweed Identification An incredibly fast growing plant, pokeweed grows in clumps of shoots that can grow 1-3 meters tall. The shoots come from a fleshy taproot under the ground, and are light green when young, turning red at maturity. The berries attract birds which help it spread where it’s established. As the plant grows and matures, the stems turn from green to purplish red. Both red and green stems are edible, but red stems are tougher and should be peeled. There’s not a lot of pokeweed look alikes, but some people confuse the plant with Japanese knotweed. Knotweed resembles bamboo where pokeweed is more of a leafy green with a thick stem. I made a little side-by-side comparison for you below. When to Harvest Pokeweed There’s lots of confusion about when poke can be harvested for cooking. Here’s a few key points. The plant can be harvested any time it’s meristematic (young and tender) which means you need to harvest the plant before flowers appear. Older plants are not more poisonous than younger plants. The height of the plant is not necessarily an indication of age. The larger the poke root is, the larger the shoots will be. To harvest poke, simply cut the plant at the base. Some people can get dermatitis, rashes or blisters from touching the cut portions or getting the sap on their skin. I’ve never had an issue or reaction from it but it appears well documented. How to Cook Pokeweed There’s a lot of well-intended, but misinformed folk wisdom surrounding how to safely cook poke. In my mind, the most important things to know are this: The plant must be boiled multiple times to be safe to eat. The root is the most poisonous part of the plant, ingestion, especially raw, could be fatal. Plants with developed roots will make shoots a few inches wide which are the best for eating. The toxins are stronger in the leaves and skin of the shoots than in the peeled shoots. Peeled shoots require less cooking than young plants where the leaves and shoots are cooked together. To be safe to eat, the plants must be boiled multiple times. There’s more than one way to do this. Sam Thayer, recommends two boils in a change of water for about 12 minutes total. But, depending on if you’re cooking greens or peeled shoots, the cooking times and number of boils can differ. With that in mind, lets go over the differences between cooking poke greens and large, peeled shoots. How to Cook Poke Greens Young plants with shoots not large enough to peel are chopped up and boiled. I boil them 3 times for 3 minutes each. After boiling the plants are safe to consume and can be cooked like any other leafy green. Pokeweed Shoots Older, established poke plants make shoots you can peel and are the easiest to cook. They retain more texture than the greens and have a delicious, mild flavor similar to burdock flower stalks. Since the toxins are concentrated in the skin and leaves the shoots only need to be boiled once. I cooked peeled poke shoots for 8-10 minutes. After the greens or shoots are boiled they can be cooked like any other leafy green. Most of the time poke is simply served as a cooked leafy green side dish. There’s one traditional recipe everyone should try though: polk salad with scrambled eggs and bacon. A satisfying meal, the greens or shoots are mild tasting and meltingly tender. Crisp bacon and tender eggs add a contrast in texture. I like mine mine with hot pepper vinegar or hot sauce. The shoots, dressed with mixed herbs, butter and lemon make a good all-purpose side dish, too. That said, remember pokeweed is poisonous raw and undercooked. It must be properly prepared to be safe. Please watch the video and read the recipe completely before attempting. More Wild Shoot Vegetables How to Cook Poke Salad Equipment 1 2 gallon pot 1 1 gallon pot Ingredients 1 lb pokeweed greens and shoots or large, peeled pokeweed shoots 1.5 gallons water as needed Kosher salt to taste 3 tablespoons bacon grease, butter, or cooking oil lemon wedges for serving, optional Instructions Young poke greens and shoots Cut the leaves and shoots into ½ inch pieces. Bring the water to a boil in both a large and small pot. Add the poke greens and stems to the small pot, put a lid on the pot and set a timer for 3 minutes. Drain the greens, cover with roughly 3 quarts of fresh boiling water, put the lid back on and cook for another three minutes. Repeat the process one more time. Drain the greens and rinse in cold water to halt the cooking. Now the greens are ready to cook. Peeled pokeweed shoots Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a pot, add the pokeweed shoots, cover, and cook for 8-10 minutes at a rolling boil. If it’s your first time cooking them, cook them for 10 minutes. Drain the cooked poke shoots and rinse in cold water to halt the cooking. Finishing and serving Heat the greens in the bacon grease or cooking oil, season to taste with salt, and serve with a lemon wedge as a side dish. Video Notes Safety note: Poke is highly poisonous raw to humans and animals like dogs and cats. My cat snuck some off the cutting board and nibbled a leaf, causing immediate emesis and lethargy for days. Treat the plant with care while it’s raw and keep it away from pets.

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