Gracie Tankersley Wallen and Wanda Wallen Osborne

Gracie Tankersley Wallen and Wanda Wallen Osborne

Creasy greens (and other things)

At the end of my last column, I noted Mom's mother had a stroke when Mom was 12, bringing an end to their outdoor adventures together. Grandma Pearl would be paralyzed the rest of her life.

Mom, youngest of 10 siblings, became a caregiver. Several of the oldest among the brothers and sisters already were married and beginning or raising their own families. Among those was the oldest sister, my Aunt Ova, who lived "out the valley" from my grandparents' homestead at Flower Gap. At least once a week, she'd walk over and spend the day lending Mom a helping hand with chores and "doing for" Grandma Pearl, Popie Null, and the household.

This included taking Mom looking for messes of greens and identifying which types to eat and which to avoid, a role previously taken by Grandma Pearl. Those must have been special times because Mom has vivid memories of a specific trip with Aunt Ova and a neighbor, Becky Ann Willis.

"We were looking for creasy greens," Mom said. "I don't remember how well we did in finding creasy greens, but we found other greens and I'm sure we came home with a mess or two."

Where'd this green hunt take place?

"We went out the valley," Mom answers.

"The valley where Aunt Ova lived?"

"No. Not up the road, down the road. Like you're going to Willis Chapel. At the big curve in the road, we just went on out that valley."

I know where she means and decide, mentally, to be careful about assuming I understand any future directions about how to go from our farm to nearby places.

Mom said she thinks that particular day stands out because it was that valley, which she would not have ventured to alone, and it was a pretty day, and Aunt Ova and Becky Ann helped hone her green-picking skills and generally showed her a good time.

When talking about Grandma Pearl teaching her which wild greens to pick and which to avoid, Mom told me about looking for certain "plantain," and being taught the difference between "nor dock" and "broad dock." "One was better than the other. I don't remember which. The other one was bitter."

After searching online with several different spellings, I think "nor dock" was a shortened "narrow-leaved dock," commonly cultivated as sorrel. "Broad dock" was, well, near as i can tell, broad-leaved dock.

Greens from a neighbor's garden
(Aunt Gracie, your roots are showing)

Mom thinks she was 14 when Uncle Mitchell married Aunt Gracie (Tankersley) and brought her home to live. Mom and Aunt Gracie are the last left in their generation of Mom's family, and they've always shared a closeness more akin to sisters than sisters-in-law. Either one can tell you comical tales of their many shenanigans.

Once, for example, Becky Ann and her husband, Log, (short for Logan and pronounced with a long "O") Willis, a well-known Primitive Baptist preacher, invited Mom and Gracie to come up to their garden (they lived "up the road," not "down the road") and pick a mess of greens from the rows they had planted and which came in well.

Mom and Aunt Gracie each took a "poke," spoke to Becky Ann and Log and went to the patch of greens. Mom worked her way along a row, pinching the greens near ground level and putting the leaves in her bag. Aunt Gracie started at the other end. Within just a few minutes, Mom noticed Aunt Gracie was advancing her way at a surprising pace, her bag already bulging.

"I asked, 'How are you picking it so fast?' " Mom says, starting to laugh. "And Gracie said, 'Picking it? I'm pulling it!' She was pulling it up by the roots. You're supposed to pinch it off, so new leaves will grow back. When I told her that, we both got nervous and embarrassed, but we both got to laughing. I think we tried to sort of stoop down and hide a little. Gracie said, 'Oh no, oh my goodness. ... Do you think they're in there watching me pull up their greens by the roots?"

I asked if they tried to just replant the greens that Aunt Gracie pulled up root and all. Mom just shook her head and looked at me like I don't have all my marbles.

For the record, Becky Ann and Log (who Mom now knows was a distant cousin) never said a word about the mishap.

Poke rhymes with joke (but it's poisonous)

Pokeweed is poisonous. But that hasn't stopped some from finding ways to "safely" eat a mess of poke greens. I grew up hearing this called poke salad. I've learned some claim the true pronunciation is poke sallet. A song that topped the pop charts in the late 1960s, and later became a staple for Elvis, calls it polk salad as it tells the tale of a girl down in Louisiana named Annie (the gator's got her granny).

Mom doesn't eat poke. I never have and hope not to. To reduce the toxins one must, I've read, boil it three to five times, draining it and adding fresh boiling water each time. Mom and other people I know remember some country cooks even cutting pokeweed stalks up, putting them through the multi-boil process, rolling them in meal and/or flour and frying them like okra.

Most of my life we've had a garden. In some years, gardens, plural (at home, at the farm, at other properties Mom and Dad owned over the years). When I first started planting my own rows of tomatoes, peppers, shallots, and tomatillos, I was pretty good at keeping a garden weeded. Pokeweed grows fast. Sometimes I'd leave one until I thought its taproot was thick enough that I'd be able to pull it up completely, rather than just pinching off the top.

One year there were a couple of pokeweeds at the edge of the garden that I would have sworn were being tended. Eventually I pulled them up ... and raised the ire of an aunt, who, in fact, was eager for the weeds to grow large enough to "make a good mess of poke salad."

"You're not supposed to eat that," I said, with perhaps not the appropriate amount of respect.

"You're gettin' too big for your britches, John Henry Orsburn," she replied. "I've been eating a little poke all my life and I know how to fix it."

My middle name is not Henry, by the way. But when this aunt called me that it could go two ways. Just "John Henry" was usually sing-songy and was a term of endearment. Adding what she recognized as the country-fied pronunciation of my last name, however, was sternly said and meant as a warning shot.

"My dog pees on poke," I said, risking a switching.

"He pees on your tomatoes, too," she replied sweetly.

She did know how to prepare poke, apparently. She once famously served it when she and her husband had another aunt and uncle over for supper. A third aunt and uncle came to visit after supper, knew poke had been served, and hijinks ensued.

I'm going to call the three couples, aunts and uncles "X," "Y" and "Z."

Aunt X picked, prepared and served the poke at supper to herself, Uncle X, Aunt Y and Uncle Y. Aunt Z telephoned to say she and Uncle Z were going to stop by when supper was over, just to visit on the porch and talk. Aunt Y got on the line and told Aunt Z how good supper was and that Aunt X had made poke salad, which she hadn't had in years and it was a wonderful, unexpected treat. On the way over, Aunt Z told Uncle Z about the poke. He decided to have some good-natured fun with Uncle X, who didn't know the aunts had talked by phone.

As they sat talking on the front porch, Uncle Z leaned toward Uncle X and said, "Did you read in the paper about that man dying after he ate too much poke salad?"

"What?" Uncle X said. "Uh, no. Who was it. What happened?"

"He got some real strong poke and didn't get the all the poison out," Uncle Z said as casually as possible, with a hint of sadness out of respect for the "dead" man. "It was in the paper one day this week. I don't remember which day. It wasn't around here. But it said for some reason poke this year is way more poisonous than it used to be. I sure wouldn't want to eat any."

"But how exactly did it kill him?" Uncle X, his belly full of previously-thought-tasty poke, asked.

"He got real hot all over and then he couldn't breathe too good ... and then he just fell over," Uncle Z said.

I always heard that a few minutes later Uncle X started rubbing his stomach, and letting out an occasional "whew!" He wiped his brow. Started chewing Tums. Loosened his belt. Finally he said he needed to stretch out on the bed and was going inside. The others didn't know what was going on until Uncle Z told them, as he ran inside to relieve Uncle X. It had, he said, gone further than he'd meant or thought it would.

When Uncle Z told Uncle X, Uncle X was red-hot mad. For a red-hot minute. Then he started to belly laugh, joined by Uncle Z. They both told the story, playing a room for laughs, until the days they died.

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