June 1, 2005
My friend Bessie Mae Evans used to keep house for us when I was a kid. She was a fountain of lore, especially when it came to snakes. She knew which ones could hoop up and roll downhill and which ones would wrap you to a tree with their coils and beat you to death. (She claimed that they would stick the tip-end of their tail in your nose every now and then to see if you were still breathing, and if you were, they'd keep whipping.)
Serpents were Satan incarnate to Bessie: I once watched her lob a Molotov cocktail down into a 30-foot culvert next to her house because a neighbor said she saw a snake crawl into it. The resulting explosion registered on a seismograph at Ole Miss.
When we weren't discussing reptiles, one of our favorite things to do together was to plant ourselves in front of the television on Saturday afternoons and watch old Tarzan movies on Channel 13 out of Memphis. She'd pretend to iron, and I'd pretend to do my homework.
I remember the afternoon when my mother came up on us watching "Tarzan Escapes" during the scene when Johnny Weissmuller is being pursued by a hoard of Hollywood extras. Momma pointed to the screen and said, "Just think, Bessie, you might be kin to those people," at which point Bessie mustered up all of her considerable dignity and said, "No, ma'am; I am a Christian lady."
And that was that about that.
Bessie also taught me how to take care of "pot plants" (which is what we used to call houseplants), how to grow greens in the winter (usually in a burnt-over spot) and how to cook poke salad.
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," Gibbons writes.
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. 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. Boil them for about 10 minutes in plenty of salt water. Then drain, rinse and simmer for a while with just a bit more lightly salted water and a bit of oil of some kind. A slit, hot pepper pod is a nice touch, and a pinch of sugar will help cut its bite.
Use poke much as you would spinach; Gibbons has a poke-salad dip in his book, and Bessie used to put it in scrambled eggs. She always cooked with bacon drippings, using plenty of salt (as somewhat of a talisman against poison of any kind, I suspect, since she used to sprinkle salt around her garden to keep the snakes out, too), and while that sounds like a recipe for a stroke, she's still nuking snakes up in Calhoun County.