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.
A view of my hometown, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, from the southwest, in the vicinity of the West Shenandoah Colliery, overlooking the culm banks, circa 1910. The writing says in Lithuanian: “Ar ne grazios apylenkis?” (sarcastically) “Are not the surroundings beautiful?” The location of the Lithuanian church is also marked by hand.
The Economist quotes a British DNA study contending that it wasn’t brains or character or superior family culture that caused the lucky ones who got out to leave. No, it was deterministic genes.
To establish baselines for their work, Dr Abdellaoui, Dr Visscher and their colleagues turned first to 33 published studies that used a technique called genome-wide association study. This is intended to discern the contributions to a trait of large numbers of genetic differences that each have a small effect. It concentrates on so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)â€”places in the DNA where an individual genetic â€œletterâ€ routinely varies from person to person. There are, for example, about 100,000 SNPs that affect height. On average, each makes a contribution, either positive or negative, of 0.14mm to someoneâ€™s adult stature. This is in contrast to Mendelian variations, where a single difference between individuals has a pronounced effectâ€”such as the difference between brown and blue eyes.
Each of the 33 baseline studies identified large numbers of SNPs that had positive or negative effects on a particular trait: extroversion, heart disease, height, body fat, age at menopause, recreational drug use and so on. The researchers then applied these SNP patterns to the records of 450,000 UK Biobank participants, and asked various questions. One thing they looked for was geographical clustering of SNPS related to individual traits. This, they discovered in abundance. Of the 33 traits under consideration, 21 showed evidence of SNP-related geographical clustering.
The most strongly clustered of all, they found were SNPS for educational attainment (ie, how many years an individual had spent at school and college). SNPs lowering educational attainment were particularly clustered in former coal-mining areas. These are places that have seen a lot of internal migration, both inward, when the mines were developed during the late 18th and 19th centuries, and outward, after the second world war, as mining shrank from being one of Britainâ€™s biggest employers to its current state of near non-existence.
Dr Abdellaoui and Dr Visscher were able, from their studies of the biobankâ€™s records, to chart the effects of the more recent, outward migration. They divided participants into four groups: those born in mining areas who had subsequently left; those born in mining areas who had stayed; those born outside mining areas who had moved into one; and those who had never lived in a mining area. The results were stark. People in the first group, outward migrants from mining areas, had significantly more educational-attainment-promoting SNPS, and fewer damaging ones, than any of the other groups, while people in the second group, stay-at-homes in mining areas, had the opposite.
Though not quite so sharply as with educational achievement, this pattern was also reflected in all but one of the other 20 SNP-related traits the researchers looked at. With the exception of bipolar disorder, the best outcomes were found in outward migrants from coalfields and the worst in stay-at-homes. The healthy, in other words, depart. The less healthy remain.
The upshot is a vicious spiral. That young, ambitious, healthy people tend to leave economically deprived areas is hardly news. But to see that written clearly in their DNA, which they take with them when they leave, while the converse is written in the DNA of those who stay behind, raises questions of nature and nurture that society is ill-equipped to answer, and possibly unwilling to confront.
Vanderleun has some elegies to the American small town so many of us grew up in.
RAY: I was born in the late fifties into the same small Kansas town where my mother and father grew up.
My grandparents all lived in that same town. Everyone was basically German, with a smattering of other northern European ethnicities thrown into the mix. The Main Street had everything anyone could possibly need to buy, from groceries to hardware. There were several Protestant churches that were always packed on Sundays, and one Catholic church on the edge of town, as well. There was no crime to speak ofâ€¦ we had one policeman, who spent most of his time bringing groceries to shut-ins. (He was a friend of my fatherâ€™s, and my dad would joke about it.) We kids (and there were tons of us!) were outside from sun up to sun down, playing and fishing and riding bikes and building things. Every family had a garden out back, and sometimes a small orchard, and some folks raised a steer for winter beef, or kept chickens. That was in town! Every holiday was an opportunity for everyone in the family to get together and have some fun and good food. It was a warm, safe, sunny, idyllic way to grow up.
That all began to change in the seventies. People became much more materialistic, thanks in part to Mom taking a job outside the home and having all that extra cash. The new color television encouraged people to buy buy buy. Parents began divorcing and all my friendsâ€™ families disintegrated. People began staying inside from sun up to sun down. Where were all the kids? Inside, playing those new video games! The gardens went to weeds.The first black family moved into town. Hey, whereâ€™s my bike?
After college, I moved to another state for a job. When I returned home for a funeral last summer, I didnâ€™t recognize the place. It was like that scene from â€œItâ€™s a Wonderful Life,â€ when George Bailey gets to see what his small town was like without him in it. The streets had all been widened, there were cars everywhere, and the town had become mile after mile of shopping and fast food joints. Main Street was dead and boarded up. There was a new GIGANTIC shopping Mall, though. It had been built on top of the land where my grandparentsâ€™ farm had been.
I sat at a table outside of one of the Mallâ€™s restaurants, sipping a coffee and watching the people as they came and went. Most were fat, poorly dressed, and had a generally unhealthy appearance. They all looked so sad and stressed.
I thought of that YouTube video â€œNever Forget,â€ showing archival footage of daily life in a small town in South Dakota in 1938. A town filled with happy, healthy, well-dressed people. My home town used to be that way, too.
But now it is gone. The modern way of life is a curse, for sure.
DETER NATURALIST: We grew up in the same town, or nearby.
Your reference to Pottersville (Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life without George Bailey) is razor-sharp. My â€œhome townâ€ grew 800% since the mid-1960s and now looks like itâ€™s the back-lot where every single TV commercial is now filmed. In my old neighborhood literally every eighth 1950â€™s vintage house has been torn down, replaced by a â€œmansionâ€ whose walls extend to the utility easements.
I remember climbing a fire escape on a downtown building with Jr. HS classmates and watching a parade from the roof. Imagine trying that now.
I remember buying rocket engines and cannon fuse with cash at the downtown hobby store (rode there on my bike) at 11 or 12 years of age. Imagine trying that now. We launched rockets at an open field near a grade school and a college. No one bothered us. When I tried to launch rockets at a county-owned field with my kids 15 years ago we got hounded by a deputy sheriff.
When I was a kid my home town had TWO stoplights. When I moved out 30 years ago it took literally 45 minutes of stop-and-go to drive from a house on the south edge of town to the north edge of town on a Saturday morning. How many â€œnew Americansâ€ have joined us since then?
An ice age cometh.
And he links the more hard-line Alt Right perspective of Chateau Heartiste.
I find it amazing sitting here, aged 70, looking back, and realizing that the whole entire active, complicated, functioning-in-a-lot-of-ways-better-than-today’s-America small town world I knew as a boy is as dead as Nineveh and Tyre. Who could have imagined this would happen?
When I was young, my small town was already a provincial relic, home to an industry in its final death stages. The coal was below the water table and post-WWII environmental regs stopped them from pumping out the water anymore.
A lot of people had already left to find work in the modern, economically thriving America of cities and suburbs, but a lot of people, too, clung to home and church and family, and their small town middle class status. Moving to the city involved an instant demotion to the bottom rung on the social and economic ladder. Moving to the city also involved the loss of ready access to the out-of-doors, and hunting and fishing were like religion to people like us. Families were close. Everyone showed up for weddings and funerals, and you were in touch with grandparents and aunts and uncles all the time. People who moved away lost all that.
But alternatives to moving away ended with my parents’ generation. I and my contemporaries grew up feeling confined by the narrow intellectual horizons and thoroughly conscious of the lack of opportunities of small town life. We were eager to get out and take on the great big outside world. Only losers and criminals stayed behind.
A lot of this had to do with the vast 20th Century growth in personal and social mobility. I had an uncle, born in 1910, who was an all-around able and intelligent man, with natural dignity and a sense of style. He had to leave school after third grade and go to work. He was stuck as a coal miner all his life. If he’d been born 40 years later, he’d have taken standardized tests and scored well, and elite colleges would have been recruiting him.
In the old days, a small town was full of able and talented people. After WWII, social mobility dispersed all the competent younger people to the four winds, leaving behind the hapless and unlucky.
Nobody today, not even the hapless and unlucky, is willing to work hard to make a small living. The malls killed Main Street, and now Amazon is killing the malls. Costs and regulations have piled up, and starting a small business is much, much harder today. When I was a kid, there were barrooms and mom-and-pop little convenience stores on every block. The latter opened at 7 in the morning and closed at 10 or 11 every night. The kind of people living in today’s small town cannot be bothered to do all that. They’d rather take relief. Personal character has dramatically decayed and our society is sclerotic with regulations and red-tape.
We’ve gained a lot with mobility and economic growth, but we have also lost so very, very much.
Shenandoah (1889), a play by Bronson Howard. The outbreak of the Civil War means that two West Point friends, Kerchival West of New York and Robert Ellingham of Virginia, must take opposing sides. Before the war, each man was in love with the other’s sister. Both men become colonels in their respective armies.
I grew up in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania called Shenandoah, and now, in old age, I live in Virginia very near the Valley of the same name, where Karen and I spend a lot of time these days hunting.
The name Shenandoah is consequently very evocative for me, so I cannot possibly avoid linking this truly over-the-top performance of the traditional folk song Shenandoah by Tom Waits and Keith Richards: 4:02 audio.