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Pokeberry sprouts for dinner

by Cheryl Moorhead Stone

My grandmother, Grammy, was a back-to-the-earth hippie decades before the actual movement started in the 1960s. She and my grandfather, Grampy (Grumpy may have been more apt), moved to their cottage in Western Pennsylvania each year on Memorial Day. They lived there until Labor Day when they reluctantly headed back to the Locust Street house in town.

The cabin was small and rustic. A well on the hill above the cabin provided cold water to the kitchen faucet. The walls of the kitchen were covered in newsprint and the cast iron wood stove was used for cooking, regardless of outside temperature. There was no bathroom. Instead, the outhouse served that purpose and was located a good walk away from the cabin, past the shed, the garden, and the beehive. Rhododendron flanked the front porch. Stone steps led to the springhouse next door and the stone fish pond beyond that where water lilies floated above the imported carp of many colors.

Diminutive in stature, Grammy embodied grace, determination, and intellect. Her laugh was a melody. She loved nature and was happiest on a walk where she would be observing, and with me commenting on, things she saw. These excursions began when I was six years old and continued throughout my childhood. When we headed out in search of particular plants or mushrooms, we did so with the intent of serving them at dinner. Fiddle head ferns, teaberries, wild strawberries, mushrooms, watercress, and poke are some that come to mind.

[Cheryl as a toddler with her grammy, circa 1955.]

My lessons on pokeweed spanned the growing season. Early she took me to a clearing at the bottom of a pine-covered hill where the pokeweed grew in plenty explaining that the plants came back every year in the same place. They were perennial. She said that we needed to wait to pick them until the sprouts formed leaves but before the plant grew tall when the leaves would become increasingly bitter and ultimately poisonous.

[Photo of pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, by Rebecca Tonietto.]

When the sprouts were maybe 10 inches high, we harvested them. Grammy said it took a lot of leaves because they would cook down. Our brown paper sack full, we hiked back to “camp”. Preparing for dinner later that day, we washed the greens and placed them into a big pot of boiling water heated on the wood burning cookstove. After cooking them for a bit, the hot water was poured off, greens set aside, and new spring water heated. Grammy said it was best to follow this procedure. When the water was boiling, we added the much-reduced volume of greens to cook once more, but not for long. Drained once more, Grammy put the greens into her cast iron frying pan where some of the morning’s bacon grease remained, and tossed them around until they were “just right”. She added a sprinkle of salt and pepper and served the plates.

None of the other kids knew all the secrets I’d learned about fixing poke. My Grammy provided a wonderful dinner and an empowered granddaughter who at 65 now gets to teach her own grandchildren lessons about nature, cooking, and love.

Cheryl Moorhead Stone, now retired, lives in Berea, Kentucky where she keeps bees, cans vegetables from her summer garden, and spends time with family and friends, including five grandchildren. Fun fact: Plant Love Stories co-founder, Bonnie McGill, is Cheryl's niece.


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