Saturday, June 02, 2001

Poke rates its own festival

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        HARLAN, Ky. — When it comes to regional cuisine, perhaps no food is as loved or as hated as poke sallet, the zesty green that helped mountain families through lean times during the Great Depression.

        Tammy Madewell of Harlan couldn't imagine spring without fresh poke fried in bacon grease.

        “It's really good,” she said. “It tastes different than any other kind of greens.”

[photo] Nancy Madewell stirs up a kettle full of poke at Jay's Sandwich Shop in Harlan. The town is holding its 47th annual Poke Sallet Festival, which winds up today.
(Rhonda Simpson photo)
| ZOOM |
        Her sister-in-law Nancy Madewell, also of Harlan, cringes at the very thought of poke.

        “I had a small taste when I was a little girl,” she said. “I hated it. I've never tried it since.”

        Love it or hate it, people in Harlan are celebrating the lowly weed in their 47th annual Poke Sallet Festival that runs through today.

        Botanical guides warn the roots and berries of poke, which grows in abundance on abandoned coal mines throughout Appalachia, are poisonous. Some believe the young, leafy plants also are poisonous if not thoroughly cooked.

        The Madewells, who serve as cooks and waitresses at a downtown restaurant, will be serving it up by the platter today. In a booth outside, the Lions Club will be serving it in a special poke pizza recipe.

        “It's not a bad dish,” said Charles Sprinkles, 69, of Harlan. “If it hadn't been for poke sallet in the 1930s, we probably wouldn't be here right now. That's what we had to eat.”

        Scientists have entered the fray, some arguing that poke could be a treatment for a variety of illnesses, including AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis. Other researchers claim that eating the plant can cause intestinal ailments, birth defects, even cancer.

        David Eakin, a botanist at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, said poke is indeed poisonous, but it can be eaten without any harmful side effects.

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