The leaves and stems of very young plants can both be eaten, but must be cooked, usually boiled three times in fresh water each time. The leaves have a taste similar to spinach; the stems taste similar to asparagus. To prepare stems, harvest young stalks prior to chambered pith formation, carefully peel the purple skin away, then chop the stalk up and fry in meal like okra. Traditionally, poke leaves are boiled, drained, boiled again, then fatback is added and cooked some more to add flavor. Poisonings occur from failure to drain the water from the leaves at least once. Preferably they should be boiled, drained, and water replaced two or more times.
Still, you’re not eating this stuff unless that’s all you can get. Tony Joe White told us so:
Recorded in 1968, “Polk Salad Annie” took the better part of a year to catch on: it topped out at #8 in 1969. Singers began combing through White’s catalogue for possible covers, and arguably Brook Benton had the greatest success:
And I’m not quite sure which is weirder: the fact that White wrote a song called “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies,” or that he got Waylon Jennings to sing with him on it.
And Tony Joe White hung in there until the age of seventy-five. I’m guessing that a childhood diet of pokeweed was not at all a factor.