When we were litle kids, back in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, we found this plant abundantly present on waste ground. We referred to its fruit as “Inkberries.” They were believed to be deadly poison. Childhood folklore held that you only needed to eat a single berry to die. So we picked lots of the fascinating berries, crushed them in containers and dared each other to try eating “Inkberry soup.” No one did.
It never occurred to us to do anything with the plant’s ordinary, boring green leaves, but Abby Carney, in Saveur, tells us that Poke salad is really a long-time staple of Appalachian-cum-Afro-American rural cuisine, valued for its flavor as well as regarded as having medicinal properties.
All we did was pick the berries, make poison with them, and throw them at each other.
Despite the fact that the kudzu-like Phytolacca americana sprouts up all across North America, poke sallet, a dish made from the plantâ€™s slightly-less-toxic leaves, is a regional thing, popular only to Appalachia and the American South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to cook out their toxins, and, as aficionados will tell you, itâ€™s well worth the extra effort.
But if pokeweed is so toxic, why did people start eating it in the first place? In a word, poke sallet is survival food.
According to Michael Twitty, historian, Southern food expert, and author of The Cooking Gene, poke sallet was originally eaten for pure practicalityâ€”its toxins made it an allegedly potent tonic. “Back in the old days, you had a lot of people who walked around barefoot,” Twitty said. “They walked around barefoot in animal feces all the time. Most of our ancestors from the Depression backwards were full of worms.” So then, poke sallet acted as a vermifuge, a worm purger.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center cites research showing that raw pokeweed has medicinal properties that can help cure herpes and HIV. That said, there are no clinical trials that support the use of the cooked dish as such, or as any kind of medicine, but its devotees swear by its curative qualities. Pokeweed remains a popular folk medicine, but it hasn’t been widely studied, so its healing properties remain, officially, purported.