Dozens upon dozens of edible plants grow wild in our region, but only one was ever featured in a hit song. ‘Polk Salad Annie,’ a ditty by a Southern boy named Tony Joe White about the joys of foraged pokeweed shoots, made it to No. 8 on the Billboard charts in 1969. Elvis Presley, another Southern boy who also knew a thing or two about being so poor that you gathered roadside weeds for dinner, also recorded a version.
So how do you cook this stuff—and why would you want to?
There have been a few Baltimore chefs, like Winston Blick at Clementine, who have tried playing around with poke on their restaurant menus. But poke prep at home is pretty straightforward. Get two big pots of water to a hard, rolling boil at the same time (you can salt it if you like). Plunge the poke into the first pot and boil two minutes, until the water tinges a lovely rose red. Remove and plunge into the second, fully boiling pot for another two minutes. The second boil's water can be pinkish, but if it turns anything approaching red, your poke shoots are probably too mature to eat safely. You can boil in a third bath, in that case. Remove and drain, but do not shock (put in cold water). Then saute in a little bacon fat or butter, and enjoy.
Finding poke for yourself is pretty much a DIY project. No piles of poke shoots for sale at the farmers market, that's for sure. My recommendation would be to make that first pokeweed foray with a knowledgeable forager—Foragers of Baltimore (meetup.com/Foragers-of-Baltimore) is a great place to connect with some. You'll learn firsthand how to recognize poke in all its many forms, and maybe even get to gather and cook some up with those who've done it before and have lived to sing the song . . .
If some of y'all never been down South too much,
I'm gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you'll understand what I'm talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
Looks somethin' like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it polk salad.