Monday, July 26, 2010

Quill Pens and Poke Berries

There is a huge pokeweed growing behind our shed. I don't know how it got so big without my noticing.

When I was a small child, my elder sister Barbara introduced me to the wonders of poke berries. A poke
plant, or pokeweed plant, is actually an herb, and I grew up eating poke. I'm sure you are familiar
with the song by Tony Joe White, "Poke Salad Annie". (It probably should have been called "Poke Salat* Annie", but nevermind.) I didn't particularly like any greens when I was little, but I would eat some whenever Mom cooked them, and now sometimes in the spring I crave a mess of fresh greens -- but usually turnip greens, my favorite!

Anyway, Mom would gather and cook fresh poke in the spring, but our family liked it best when she cooked the stalks, not the greens. She would slice up a stalk of poke, soak it in salt water for a while, then bread, salt and pepper, and fry it like you would
okra or green tomatoes. You can only do this with the young stalks that are no bigger around than the tip of your little finger, and preferably smaller, and have no purple on them! They taste great! However, do not try this if you don't know what you're doing. You have to gather the leaves before they have any red color on them, and you should boil them a few times, discarding the water, before you eat them. I think Mom would do three boilings before she seasoned them for eating. If the leaves have any red on them at all, you should not eat them. Cooked down and seasoned properly with a bit of bacon grease, they look like spinach and taste a bit like asparagus to me. In summer the plant is several feet tall with a thick, tough stalk and great bunches of purple berries that weigh it down, and that make a great ink for a kid to play around with.

One late summer Barbara showed me how to pick the berries, put them in a jar, and mash them with a home-made pestle of sorts, until we had a dark, purple-blue goo that I defy the best stain-remover to get out of clothes or off skin. Now, what can you do with such a goo? Well, if you happen to have goose feathers handy -- and we did -- you have a whole summer of fun.

We got hold of a few very long, white flight feathers from Mom's geese -- I don't remember if we found them (probably, there were always feathers around) or if we relieved the geese of them (maybe; I wouldn't put it past us), -- and Barbara showed me how to whittle the tip of the quill to a sharp point. Et voila, quill pens and ink.

If you had enough "ink", you could dip in your quill, and the ink would almost fill up the shaft of the feather, so you wouldn't have to re-dip very often. If the ink started to dry up, a few drops of water would put it right very quickly. We kept the lidded baby food jars of ink in an old shed, because Mom wouldn't allow them inside the house. I can remember several summers of fun drawing poke-ink pictures or writing out notices that usually began with "Hear ye, hear ye!", and then rolling up the papers after the ink had dried, tyeing them with a bit of ribbon, and delivering them to other members of the family. My friends and cousins and I would write letters back and forth to one another as well.

I was quite old before I found out that Barbara hadn't invented poke ink. Native Americans had used the ink to decorate their horses, and it had been used by early American whites as a writing ink and a dye. She probably read about it when she was reading the New World Encyclopedia for fun!

The first spring after we bought our house, I discovered some poke weed growing along the fence-line and showed them to Eler Beth. (I know you won't be surprised when I tell you that even at the age of four she could identify poke stalks when she saw them.) I told her the plant could be poisonous, that there were a couple ways you could eat them, and that later in the year when they made berries I'd show her something special. When they were the right size I cooked a few greens that no one really liked (but at least Eler Beth could say she'd tried them), and I fried some stalks that only Eler Beth and I really liked, and every year since then she's tried to find poke stalks of the right size so we could fry them up. But until this year none of the poke plants had made it past being struck down with a weed eater to grow to enough maturity to make clusters of berries. I have long since told my daughter about poke ink, so I'm sure when she finds out there's a big stalk loaded down with berries behind the shed, she's going to want to give ink-making a try.

I don't have any goose quills, but we do happen to have some large turkey feathers. Wonder if they'd work just as well?

Interesting note: The Allen Canning Co. sold canned poke salet up until the year 2000.

*"Salat" is the German word for salad. This is a really interesting article on poke, and this is another one.


Paula said...

This is one of the things I like about online journals or blogs, You learn so many things. I've heard of poke salad but never have ate it. There used to be a DJ in San Antonio who went by the name Poke Salad Charlie Walker or something like that.

Jenny said...

I wonder if we have anything similar in the UK but call it by a different name. Berries look very much like poisonous ones we have over here so proabably wouldn't try to eat them. Very interesting.

Jenny <><

Anonymous said...

I had one in the back yard that I renamed The Jolly Great Giant Pokeweed.

I have to admit I never ate poke or heard of eating it.


Thanks for educating me about poke berries and pokeweed. I see them around my place all the time but never knew what they were. I love the fact you made ink out of it and used the feathers.

Beth said...

I've always known it as "polk salad," but yeah, there is plenty at our place! This time of year they get to be the size of a small tree. Fun and interesting post!

Debbie said...

I don't remember if we used the poke berries as ink when we were kids but I do remember using them for a really pretty fingernail polish. Mulberries made a really pretty lipstick while we ate them.

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