Today’s dinner menu shall include a combination of the following: snake’s tongue, pole cat cabbage, white top, mouse’s ear, ground hog weed, dandelion, tangle gut, plantain, creasy, shawnee, sour dock, wild beet, water weed, a touch of milkweed and, of course, a heaping helping of poke. Sound delicious?
For the record, none of the above listed ingredients are in the meat category. And, for those who haven’t figured it out yet, all of the above actually are edible plants; indeed, they are wild greens which grow throughout Logan County and the entire Appalachian region. Believe it or not, these “veggies” played a key role in the western expansion to our area. Picking wild greens is a mountain heritage which has been passed on from one generation to another. Unfortunately, it appears this mountaineer tradition, like so many others, is gradually fading into the realm of extinction. However, “old-timers” hold fast to the fond memories related to picking a “mess” of wild greens.
I prefer not to classify myself as an old-timer, but would like to relate the following information which I hope the reader finds of some interest or enjoyment.
Having picked wild greens every spring for as long as I can remember, my first experience came when I was quiet young. My grandmother (Lilly Williamson) and two other ladies of our No. 16 coal camp neighborhood on Mud Fork took me with them one afternoon. As we walked the tram road located on a nearby hillside, the women, wearing aprons to hold the greens they were gathering, carried on with casual conversation, each pointing out to the other when one identified a delicacy, particularly the green known as shawnee. It was widely eaten as a salad, but also could be cooked with other greens. Since these three “hillbillies” did not take a bag to put their greens in, I’m sure they were on that day only looking for shawnee since their aprons would not hold nearly enough had they been choosing other varieties. It is likely they were picking shawnee to be wilted, along with green onions, by hot bacon grease at that evening’s dinner. Since nearly every coal camp family seemed to have the same daily menu, it is probable that pinto beans, fried potatoes and certainly cornbread were being featured that spring day.
Practically every woman in the camp picked greens at one time or another and that included the likes of Alberta Evans, Mona Hall, Bessie Williams, Florida Perdue, Ora Marcum, Lois Bowers and others. Of course, some men, including my father (Carlos), also picked greens. This probably was the scenario in every community in Logan County at the time. Grandma enjoyed telling about one such “picking” excursion by her and some of the ladies of the camp in which again I tagged along. It seems one of the women spotted a green which is called “snake’s tongue” Its under-belly is purple and is forked like a real snake’s tongue, thus the name.
“Over there’s some snake tongue,’’ one of the ladies exclaimed. Grandma said that I, then about five-years-old, “took off running like a scared rabbit.” I still today care little for snakes. But, like my Court Marshall buddy Jimmy Hooker says: “You’re invading their turf, so you shouldn’t kill them.”
It should be explained that the names of these greens have been handed down for years and what I refer to by one name, another “picker” might call something else. For instance, what I call “white top” is called “mayweed” by some people. What I describe as “sour dock” is called “red dock” by others. Some describe “water weed” as “jewel weed”. Early pioneers certainly were not concerned with the scientific names of their food. I can only imagine Grandma saying to a neighbor:
“Hey, Mona, you want to go pick some “barbaraea verna” tomorrow?” With barbaraea verna being the scientific name for creasy greens, I think the neighbor would respectfully decline, not having a clue what Grandma was talking about.
I also went green picking with my mother (Ethel) and my previously mentioned father as a youngster; sometimes with both, sometimes with either. My mother taught me how to prepare the greens and I use the same recipe even today for all greens, even store bought such as mustard, kale, etc. Obviously, green picking has been a family tradition. My mother and others preserved greens by canning them, and I have done the same. Fresh mountain greens from a quart jar are appreciated in the dead of winter.
Since the entire state is coming out of one of the worst winters we’ve had in years, this season’s vegetation was a little late coming up. But, it is now May and the best time to find all greens, “poke” being the latest to break through the ground and reach for the sky. Some doctors in the pas t have contended that poke is toxic to humans and should be boiled three times, emptying the water each time before consumption. I, for one, am a living example that the doctors are wrong. I will warn you that if you consume the cooked poke alone, not mixed with other greens, well, let’s just say you’re in for a good “spring cleaning.” However, I have found a mixture of as many different greens as possible, plus poke, to be simply delicious. I think of this mixture as a delicacy, much like some do morel mushrooms, better known in our area as “molly moochers.” In France, a plate of “molly moochers” will cost a diner $70 or more. Mountain people also refer to the mushroom as “dry land fish”. When prepared correctly, they are worth every penny. Of course, another spring vegetable some people favor this time of year is ramps, which have been available for several weeks.
Picking and then eating a “mess” of wild greens after a long winter truly serves to rejuvenate and cleanse the body. I compare it to putting a new motor in an old car. Physicians have long cited the health benefits of green vegetables, but wild greens surpass everything. For instance, just 100 grams of creasy greens contain 5,067 units of vitamin A and 152 milligrams of vitamin C. By comparison, raw broccoli has only 2,500 units of vitamin A and the mighty orange provides only 50 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams. Imagine what a combination of these greens could be supplying to your body.
When I was an actual employee of The Logan Banner back in the 1980s, I wrote a weekly feature titled “Neighbors”. Each week was a different story about someone in the area. One week it might have been the late Senator Robert C. Byrd with his fiddle. The next week it would be a “wino” in the then Logan courthouse jail. But, I mostly enjoyed interviewing older citizens. After all, older people may not always be more intelligent, but they are always wiser than the younger folks, largely due to experience. Like the saying goes: “You can’t be old and wise, if you haven’t been young and crazy.”
The one thing which all of the older people had in common when I asked about their longevity was the fact all said they ate greens regularly and most had picked them in their lifetimes. I’ll never forget the 105-year-old black lady I interviewed. She lived at Kistler, and when I called the ladies who took care of her to verify the appointment I had previously made, I was informed she was “up on the hill picking greens.”
In a book copyrighted in 1961 and written about the descendants of Alden Williamson, the author writes about the migration through the Cumberland Gap into the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky and into parts of Virginia, now Wayne, Lincoln, Mingo and Logan counties of West Virginia. I think it speaks the same of all families coming into the area from any direction. The author, Peter Alley, is a descendant of the legendary Jenny Wiley, whose daughter (also named Jenny) married Richard Williamson. My grandfather (Amos) was his great-grandson. The book reads as follows:
“The men came first and built some kind of shelter, then later brought their families. Nature’s blessings, with deprivations, were abundant. There was game in the woods from bear down to the squirrel, wild honey to be found in hollow trees, fish in the streams and no game laws. Gardens would soon grow and in the meantime wild greens was plentiful. There was “range for the livestock in summer and mast for the hogs in the fall and winter.”
This writer shall point out there are several poisonous plants that abound and suggests not trying any green without the knowledge of an experienced picker. Although I have seen people doing it, I suggest not picking any greens near a highway or along the railroad tracks. Carbon monoxide from vehicles is absorbed by the plants and trains leave “gunk” along the tracks. There still are people around who know what is edible and what is not; and the best locations for certain greens. Some may be in your lawn. I suggest not eating those.
For those who like any kind of greens, I suggest the following: Wash the greens thoroughly. Place them in a large kettle, packing them in fairly tight as they will cook down considerably. Put enough water in the kettle to cook the greens. As they cook down, push the greens further into the boiling water. Cook for about two hours. When the greens are about finished cooking, fry about a half pound of bacon in a large iron skillet; removing the bacon when browned. Place the greens into the hot skillet and cut into smaller pieces with a knife. Salt as desired, then cover and cook another 45 minutes to an hour. A piece of cornbread and a slice of onion, along with the greens, actually composes a good hillbilly meal. Cooking oil of your taste may be substituted for the bacon grease.
I can hear it now: “This guy’s crazy. I ain’t eatin’ no weeds that some wild animal has peed on.”
To that person, I would simply say: “Well, sir, just go ahead and take your chances with that foreign guy who has been picking your “store bought” greens in the fields of California.”
How do you spell E-COLI?