I have been to the Poke Salat Festival.
Seriously. Tragedy (that’s what I call my husband because of his resting sad face compared to my perpetual mule-eating-briars Comedy grin) and I drove for more than an hour from Birmingham to Arab, Ala., just to go to the Poke Salat Festival. How could we not?
Now I’ve never eaten poke salat*, but I have pulled some poke plants up in my yard. It’s a weed. You’ve seen it growing alongside the road — tall with reddish stalks and clusters of dark, dark purple berries. It’s actually very pretty. It’s actually extremely poisonous.
So why not cook some up and throw a festival? You know I had to see what that was all about.
Poke salat is something people must have begun eating not because they wanted to, but because they had to. In rural Appalachia, the tender green leaves of the weed come out before your garden has “come in,” when there’s little else fresh and green available. And it’s a process to make it edible. You have to boil it, rinse it, and boil it again at least three times so that it doesn’t have a … uh … cleansing effect on you. Or kill you.
It’s also been used in folk medicine. Native Americans made a poultice from the roots that was supposed to help what my Granny called “the rheumatiz.” It’s also been said to “cure” everything from the mumps to skin rashes. What’s that old saying? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
But back to the festival. Arab (pronounced AY-rab) is a little town in northeast Alabama. Marshall County to be exact. You can drive straight up I-65 and hang a right at Cullman, but as you know, Tragedy and I like to stay off the interstate. (Read more about that here and here.) That’s why we took Hwy. 79 up through such interesting places as Tarrant, Locust Fork, Cleveland, and Blountsville. If I’m going on a trip, I want to see what’s along the way. Half the fun and all that jazz.
Here’s what we saw: lots of people on riding mowers trying to combat their overgrown yards, a shade tree mechanic working on a car that sat on blocks, a couple of farmers markets and one flea market, the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, a State Trooper in my rearview mirror who turned around but not stop me (whew!), some mules in a field, and one red-tailed hawk. Beats the pea-turkey out of seeing a bunch of speeders, a rest area, and some trees.
The Poke Salat Festival was held in downtown Arab, which is a cute four- or five-block stretch anchored by a plant nursery on one end and a Sonic on the other. Tents circled one whole city block pretty much smack dab in the middle. Since Tragedy and I didn’t know what to expect from a festival that honors a barely-edible leafy green, we were both surprised that it was a fairly small affair and surprised that it was so extensive. It is a weed, after all.
The tents held many of the usual things one expects to find at a festival — jewelry, pottery, handmade knives, various and sundry crafts. There were a few “do you know Jesus” and “learn the good news” tents. One tent seemed to be selling frogs and hermit crabs in little plastic carriers. There was a Tupperware lady. And the youth wrestling league was selling bottled water and raffle tickets.
Entertainment was provided throughout the afternoon in the form of a scavenger hunt, bluegrass pickin’, a battle of the bands, and clogging. Any day you can hear some bluegrass and watch some clogging is a good day in my book. Of course there was a bouncy house. I didn’t bounce, but I wanted to.
There was a barbecue truck and someone selling grilled sausages with onions. All the good smells. A couple was selling popsicles from a cart, and I think I saw some sort of bake sale happening. But where was the poke salat? I really expected there to be a long line of people waiting at a tent where the ladies auxiliary (or at least the volunteer fire department) would be dishing out bowls of the stuff.
We made two loops around the block thinking we might have missed it, but there was not one weed in sight anywhere.
Now I don’t know what May feels like where you live, but in Alabama it’s pretty warm which is why we stopped for a popsicle after our second go-around. While I was making small talk with the nice man and woman who owned the cart and Tragedy was wishing I didn’t talk to every stranger I meet, it occurred to me to ask just where one could find some poke salat at the Poke Salat Festival.
“You have to go the restaurant,” the man said. “L Rancho — go back up to the main drag and it’s on the right.”
Oh … in the restaurant. Why didn’t I think of that?
So we went back up to the main drag and turned to the right. Sure enough, there was a little restaurant that looked like a log cabin with a big wide awning and a sign that read L Rancho Cafe. We walked in and a nice lady greeted us and said to take a seat anywhere. I picked a booth close to the big, chalkboard menu sign just as she was climbing in the next booth to … wait for it … erase polk salat from the menu with her sleeve.
The L Rancho Cafe was clean out of poke salat. Not a leaf, not a stem, not even so much as a spoonful of poke pot likker was left.
We did get a glass of sweet tea for the ride home, which seemed a little faster than the trip up. Maybe because we were hot and tired. Maybe because the anticipation of trying something new was gone. Maybe the abject disappointment of not getting any poke salat at The Poke Salat Festival blurred the miles and the time into the setting sun.
I guess there’s always next year.
* “Sallet” is either a French or Middle English term (I found both attributions on the internet) that refers to cooked greens. Sometimes you’ll see a reference to poke sallet or poke salad, but since Arab calls it salat, I will too.