As Mr. Robinson said, Black American history is a combination of “hood and country.” And Larry Gholston is holding down part of that rural heritage.
Come each May, Mr. Gholston eyes the cattle-yard a short distance from his home in Toccoa, Ga. He’s searching for something very specific — and, in its natural form, toxic: Phytolacca americana, the pokeweed plant native to the South and Appalachia. A 68-year-old retiree and community historian, Mr. Gholston is committed to preserving poke sallit, a dish made from pokeweed. For the past 30 years, he has been handpicking small, tender leaves for the Poke Sallit Festival that he holds every Memorial Day.
He’s trying to pass down his knowledge to younger people, including his 35-year-old son, Seth Gholston, who D.J.s the event while his father cooks: Seth can now easily spot the 10-foot tall plant.
The festival is meant “to maintain our heritage,” said Mr. Gholston. “A lot of Black folk will tell you, ‘I don’t eat that mess, man.’ It has connotations of poorness and rural.”
Although pokeweed’s leaves, berries and roots are poisonous to varying degrees, many rural Americans once soaked, boiled and sautéed their leaves into poke sallit (possibly a derivation of “salad”), akin to collard greens. The toothsome dish can send an eater to the hospital if its toxins aren’t neutralized. Few people know how to cook it correctly now, and fewer dare; Mr. Gholston, who perfected his technique by drawing from family tradition, is an exception.