Poke In The Eye.

pokeA single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.

My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.

The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.

After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the

He signed my copy and added, "Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win." I feel like I lost.

He signed my copy and added, “Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win.” I feel like I lost.

class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.

A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.

10 Comments

  1. kdcol

    Funny the memories that came poking up, all from the one pokeweed sprout. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It is funny. Some days I can just be overwhelmed by memories because everything I see reminds me of something else. But I’m glad all these memories came up because it made me pull out my copy of Rooster Bingo, and I’d forgotten how funny some of his childhood experiences were.

      Reply
  2. Gina W.

    OK, that’s funny that an African American friend caught you reading “My Life in the Klan”. That’s one of those books that sounds interesting but I’d probably have to wear a hat and sunglasses when picking it up at the library. Or else I’d apologize profusely: “It’s an expose! Really!”. A year or so ago I read the book “Stiff” which is about human cadavers. I was in a waiting room one time reading it and two different men gave me odd looks. I thought, “Maybe they think it’s a book about erections?”. But it seemed equally odd to say, “It’s not what you think. It’s about dead bodies!”. Perhaps we should invest in book covers.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Another friend of mine used to read books like Mein Kampf in the lunchroom just to shock people–which, he said, was the only reason to read it. He said it was the most insanely boring thing he ever read and he couldn’t even finish it. And I hate to say this but I wonder how many high school students would recognize that book.
      You’re experience reading Stiff is hilarious. For some reason I keep thinking they were really old guys and they knew it was about cadavers and that within a few years it would apply to them too.

      Reply
  3. Jay

    Wow, what kind of memories are in my backyard, do you think?

    Great piece.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m so glad you liked it. And there are probably endless memories in your backyard. Ever watch an anthill? Lick the nectar out of a honeysuckle blossom? It’s amazing what’ll evoke hidden memories.

      Reply
  4. Sandra

    You know how sometimes you start reading a blog post and you think, “I’m not sure this is going to be for me,” but you keep reading because you can’t stop? Well, that’s how I feel about your writing Mr.Freethinker. At first I was all, “Pokeweek? WTF?” And then I was so absorbed by your wit and the tale of being Jerry Thompson’s number one fan that I have immediately become YOUR number one fan. You’ll have to forgive my fawning. It’s going to happen a lot.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Wow. I’ll try not to be overwhelmed. I’m glad you’re along for the ride, and I hope you’ll enjoy wherever it is I’m going. And I’ve got to warn you I have no clue where I’m going. I’m all about stories, and I just follow wherever they lead.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    Here’s one thought that poked through for me, Chris:

    This Annie has never seen poke sallet in print before, so — up until today — I’ve always thought it was poke salad.

    I am always grateful for what pokes through your posts, no matter how pokey I am in reading them.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The important thing is that you poke your head in. Having done a little research “sallet” appears to be an extremely rare regionalism–it’s not even mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Salad” is derived from the Italian “sallet”, but a salad usually has multiple ingredients that are often raw, but “poke sallet” is nothing but cooked poke weed, with maybe some cured poke added for seasoning. That has me wondering, though, why we eat “turnip greens” instead of “turnip sallet”.

      Reply

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