By Sandy Williams Driver
I was washing dishes one beautiful spring morning after we moved into our new house and happened to glance out the window facing the pasture. I caught a glimpse of movement and dried my hands to investigate. Stepping off the back porch, I recognized the elderly woman from next door slowly heading my way. I felt a moment of regret that I hadn’t gone over and introduced myself over the previous few weeks since joining the neighborhood. Closing the gap, I opened my mouth in greeting, but the petite lady with salt and pepper hair beat me to the punch. “Are you all gonna eat that poke salat in the pasture?” she asked abruptly.
I curiously searched over her shoulder, but honestly had no idea what she was talking about. As a child, I had a record album of Elvis Presley singing the 1969 top 10 hit by Tony Joe White, Polk Salad Annie, but I had never seen nor tasted the popular green plant.
While I was growing up, my mother cooked collards and turnip greens so often our tongues turned green in the summer time, but not liking it herself, she just never cooked poke salat. I introduced myself to my neighbor and then said, “You are welcome to pick all the poke salat you want from our land. We don’’t eat it.” Humph, she snorted. “Not from around here, are you?”
With the look she gave me, I wanted to reach up and touch the top of my head to make sure I hadn’t grown horns. I tried to reassure her I was raised within eight miles from where we stood, but she turned away, shaking her head, and walked briskly back towards the pasture. I stood by the fence and watched her carefully pick the long smooth leaves from a towering plant I had always thought was just a weed.
Poke Salat is indeed made from a weed, pokeweed, which grows in rich, moist soil. It can be found growing wild in the country, on vacant lots, along fence rows and the edges of woods. Pokeweed, sometimes called pokeberry, has a thick taproot, which starts out green, but turns red, and shoots up from hip to shoulder high in the spring. Small white flowers form in long clusters and become juicy, dark purple berries when the plant matures in early summer.
The word poke comes from a Pre-Columbian American word meaning plant used for red or yellow dye. The juice from the berries was used for ink and continues to be used for dye. The word salat is a German word used for salad. Early settlers ate the first tender leaves of pokeweed in the spring to give them vitamins and treat arthritis. They considered it a good tonic for what ailed them.
Native Americans also used pokeweed for a wide variety of internal and external medicinal purposes. Even though the berries of pokeweed are very popular with robins, mockingbirds, and bluebirds, they are dangerously poisonous to humans, along with the roots, seeds, and mature stems and leaves. Only the young shoots and developing leaves, (before they start to turn red), can be eaten and then only after a special process.
The Cooperative Extension Service at Purdue University in Indiana warns that no part of the pokeweed plant should be touched or eaten by humans or livestock. But folks in the rural South, like my neighbor lady, still consider it a spring delight. There is even a sprinkling of Poke Salat Festivals spread across the United States each year in the spring and summer months.
The small town of Arab, in north Alabama, has held one for at least the past twenty years on the first week-end in May. The annual celebration includes arts and crafts displays, a street dance and a cook-off among other family events.
My mother-in-law enjoys eating poke salat and continues to cook it often. She instructed me how to prepare the controversial dish in case I ever wanted to try it.
By Sandy Williams Driver
Spices Through Time
Author: Lee J. Thatcher
Many spices that we consider commonplace kitchen essentials had very important places in history. Cinnamon has been used since at least 2800 BC in China and was valued for its antiseptic properties. During Nero’s reign of Rome (Ad 54-68) the grief-stricken ruler burned an entire years worth of cinnamon on the funeral pyre of his wife to show his great remorse. This might have been a more convincing demonstration if he had not himself murdered her.
Venice was made rich from cinnamon and many lives were lost in an effort to dominate its trade, as was true of many other spices.
Later, the Europeans found cinnamon good for disguising the smell of spoiling meat. In certain countries the spice had more of a role in cooking than in others. Mexico, for example, and India use cinnamon much more than the Europeans or Americans in their cuisine.
In today’s American kitchen, cinnamon is used primarily in baked goods or flavorings for teas and coffees. Interestingly, the cinnamon, Cinnamomum Zeylanicum, purchased in the USA is likely to be cassia, a very similar spice which is much easier to find and cheaper as well. To tell the difference in the ground variety, look for a light tan, fine powder with a delicate, woody smell. That’s cinnamon.
Cassia is reddish brown in color, and has a stronger aroma. The two are often mixed together, making it nearly impossible to know whether you’re buying cinnamon or cassia. To obtain true cinnamon, buy the sticks. You can tell a cinnamon stick by the shape of its curl, or roll. Remember the cannelle rule. Cannelle means Little cannon in French, and that’s because the cinnamon stick is curled in one roll, whereas the cassia stick closely resembles a scroll, with both sides of the stick rolled inward towards the middle.
Besides the pure pleasure of cinnamon in its aroma and flavor, its other benefits to health that are now coming to light are truly worth paying attention to.
Studies at the Agriculture Research Service by Dr. Richard A. Anderson reveal significant increased response of fat cells to insulin after the fat cells have been exposed to the active ingredient in cinnamon, initialed MHCP. This is great news since the body’s resistance to insulin, the chemical that regulates and stabilizes blood sugar levels, characterizes diabetes.
Similarly and also of importance is the finding that the same MHCP prevents the formation of damaging oxygen radicals, which correlate with findings showing that antioxidant supplements can slow the progression of some of the complications of diabetes. For the health benefits described, it is recommended that you purchase whole cinnamon sticks and ground them yourself and then add it to your tea or food of choice. This is not intended as health advice to treat any type of disease. Only a physician can prescribe a course of treatment for any illness, but it sure looks like cinnamon has a lot more going for it than we may have thought.
My favorite use for cinnamon is The Cinnamon Roll, or Bun.
Author: Lee J. Thatcher
Published in U S Legacies Magazine March 2004