Out in their backyard and around their kitchen table, Phillip and Lakie Earnis talk of their love of canning and the Lord.
Married for 42 years, the couple minister and sing, Lakie says, and love canning stuff, especially the old-fashioned way outdoors and old-fashioned things like poke salet, as they call it.
"The Lord has blessed us in many ways, with our family and friends," Lakie says. "We have health problems but we are still blessed."
They've devised a two-tiered system of tub and fire pit out back with a huge kettle that permanently anchors the bottom one and a system for toting everything back and forth from the house.
From start to finish, Phillip said, "it's hard work and a process." It's worth it to preserve tradition, the couple said, to have control over what goes into the jars and have a supply to share with others
Inside their home on Powell River, the custom canning cupboard Phillip built is packed with all sorts of good stuff from their garden and those of others. They harvest the pokeweed, though, mostly growing wild along roadsides and fence lines. It's best picked young, Phillip said, but they also use the small tender tops if the plants are taller.
The pokeweed gets a serious cleaning of all dirt and insects and a long cooking time, he explained, because you don't want to eat it raw.
But fry up some canned pokeweed in some grease, Phillips says, cut you up some onions in it, and put you about three eggs in it "and you talk about some good eatin.' Goes good with soup beans and cornbread and potatoes, and about anything you want."
The Earnis's are talking about a fairly common and recognizable field and roadside weed, characterized by those deep purple juicy berries bending the tops of long, leafy stalks, looking tempting enough to eat.
Pokeweed also is categorized as poisonous, all of it, if eaten raw.
"All parts of the pokeweed plant contain toxins, although the greatest concentration is in the taproot and seeds," Wise County Cooperative Extension Agent Phil Meeks, explained in an email.
"I think it’s totally fair to call it a wild green. I grew up with it, as did a lot of folks. I try to point it out during wild edibles workshops. I never tell folks NOT to eat it, but I point out the precautions."
Meeks said he believes the concentrations of toxins "increase in the leaves and stem as the plant matures, so as a wild green it should be harvested young."
Meeks also suggested as an additional resource North Carolina State University Extension, where the website uses all capital letters to describe the severity if fresh pokeweed is ingested: HIGHLY TOXIC, MAY BE FATAL IF EATEN!
Symptoms of ingestion include burning of mouth and throat, salivation, severe stomach irritation, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, spasms and convulsions.
Yet, prepared properly, pokeweed is edible. "Cooked berries are safe for making pies," NCSU Extension notes. Tender young shoots are served like asparagus and pokeweed stalks can be pickled or rolled in corn meal and fried like okra. Details of how to prepare pokeweed for cooking are available on the website at https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/phytolacca-americana-p-rigida/.
While they follow harvesting and cooking precautions, the Earnis's don't necessarily see eye to eye with the experts on the plant's label as poisonous and "we've got living proof of it," Phillip declares.
When their daughter was little and desperately ill with the croup, they related, Lakie's aunt made a concoction that startled them at first but cured the child. It included the juice of well-cooked, dried pokeberries. Her aunt knew "about that stuff," Lakie said. They believe in the medicinal value of the plant, she added, "and the healing powers of the Lord."
North Carolina State University Extension experts caution that pokeweed berries, roots and mature plants are poisonous, and therefore should only be used as new, young growth. NCSU provides these tips for safely handling and consumption of this wild green:
Only collect young shoots from areas you know have NOT been treated with pesticides. Discard any red-tinged plant material. To avoid possibly collecting part of the toxic root, do not cut below ground level. Collect in early spring.
• SAFE HANDLING PROCEDURES:
Wash young shoots thoroughly with warm water. Do not use dish detergent or any type of sanitizer. These products can leave a residue. Peel and parboil tender young shoots (less than eight inches) in two changes of water several minutes each. Boil in a third water until tender and serve like asparagus.
Young stalks less than one foot tall, with leaves removed, and before red tinged, can be cut and rolled in corn meal and fried like okra. They can also be pickled.
Young leaves taken from stalks less than one foot tall can be parboiled in two changes of water for several minutes each and boiled in a third water until tender. To freeze, parboil leaves twice, cook, pat dry and place them in plastic bags.
— Source: North Carolina State University Extension