August 2018
Your Next Meal From the Wildside

An Old House & Pokeweed

 

Even if a house is no longer a home, it might still have worth by protecting your next meal such as this pokeweed.

For many years, I have photographed and painted landscapes with older houses and barns. They are usually abandoned structures, sometimes with thick vegetation obscuring the original shape of the building. Winding vines and low branches seem to reclaim what once belonged to a family now long-gone. The images may bring a fondness for past ways of life, a sadness for nearly worn-out structures or a sense of how much lifestyles have changed.

Whether I am in a bigger city or a rural area, it isn’t unusual for a building or house to catch my eye.

One morning, I was on my way to pick up my daughter, Rolley Len, from her dance class. I drove with my son, Cason, down a side street near downtown Opelika. As I stopped for a turn, I looked to my left at a little yellow boarded-up house sitting on a corner lot. We had already passed it earlier when we dropped off Rolley Len, but this time there was some new activity.

As we approached, I saw there was a sand-colored, four-door car parked close to the other side of the house rather than in the semicircle driveway. On the side with the driveway, there were seven or eight people who appeared to be a family. What had earlier looked like just another old abandoned house slowly going to waste had become an animated scene infused with life.

Children played in the yard, grownups talked in the shade of a tree, and one man pulled tall green leafy plants from the side of the house.

Immediately, I realized the man was not simply weeding; he was harvesting a mess of pokeweed to make poke salat while his family patiently waited. The pile of greens quickly grew to knee high as he nimbly gathered the plants and leaves.

Although the house was empty and the backyard garden was overgrown, the untended soil was still giving back to a family.

Rolley Len Kirk is carefully weeding around the pokeweed where she will have her garden.

 

Years after a house is no longer a home, and the history of the family may be forgotten, it can still have a tremendous value. For this house, the treasure was pokeweed, an amazing food because not only will it grow almost anywhere without human attention, but it is also a very nutritious addition to a family meal.

Later Rolley Len asked why I didn’t stop while the family was still there. I almost did, but truthfully, without knowing the family or if it was even their property, I wasn’t sure what their reaction would be to my curiosity. Rather than intrude or spoil their activities, I had decided to leave them alone and let them keep their privacy.

Just like I don’t know the story of this family, most of us who drive by abandoned houses will never know the stories of the people who once lived there. We don’t know whether their lives were filled with struggle or strength, but we can witness that the land can keep on giving. No matter what life had been like within the home when it was occupied, for me, the yellow house and its grounds became symbols of nature’s ability to consistently replenish its resources to nurture man.

Remember, pokeweed is poisonous and must be harvested and prepared carefully. Before picking pokeweed, make sure you know when the plants are safe to harvest. Any plants with purple on the stem or berries should definitely be left alone. Some people wear gloves while they pick, wash and cook it.

All recipes for poke salat should include washing and boiling the greens multiple times as a first step towards making it safe to eat. For extra food safety, it is recommended between boils and rinses to also wash out the boiling pot and colander.

For more information on harvesting and preparing poke salat, view these Youtube videos: "Cooking Poke Salad on a Campfire with Josie Rae," www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVUO6VBzoUw, and "Seven wild edibles around your house," www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4YsNAlhNAw.

 

POKE RECIPE #1

Pokeweed leaves (about 2 brown paper bags full, the more the better because they cook down)
Water
Bacon grease, enough to coat pan
Crushed bacon, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Remove leaves from plant. In a large pot, place leaves. Rinse in cool water. Drain and refill with water. Bring to rolling boil for 20 minutes. Pour leaves into colander and rinse in cool water. Return to pot and cover with water. Boil and rinse at least two more times.

In a large skillet, fry leaves for a couple of minutes in bacon grease. Add crushed bacon, salt and pepper.

 

POKE RECIPE #2

5 pounds poke leaves, stems removed, leaves washed and rinsed
Water
½ pound pork fatback, baked in oven until crisp
3 large bunches green onions, roughly chopped

In a large pot, place washed leaves and cover with water. Bring to a boil, allow to cook for about 15 minutes. Drain water and refill with fresh water. Bring to a boil again and allow to cook for about 15 minutes or until the leaves turn an olive-green color. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze water from leaves and return to pot.

Pour grease from fatback onto leaves and add onions. Cover and cook until the onions are very tender.

Note: Other options: When panfrying, add a half cup of chopped onions and country ham to the leaves, or add eggs and cook with the leaves until they are dry.

 

Christy Kirk is a freelance writer who lives in Little Texas.