Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
by Michael R. Burch
Ever get struck by a “belated epiphany,” by which I mean a lightning bolt of sudden realization that shocks you out of a stupor, so that you lie bedazzled, congratulating yourself for discovering instantaneously what you should have known all along? I had an epiphany like that, once. Woke me out of a nice, twenty-year-long, Rip Van Winkle-like sleep . . .
As a young boy growing up on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, I was baffled by the altogether unobvious attractions a weedlike, noxious, virtually indigestible plant called “poke salat” held for my beloved and otherwise-much-admired Grandpa Burch, who pursued it hotly like “a blue tic tailin’ a coon.” In all other ways Grandpa was a grizzled-gray icon of serenity and sagacity; but when it came to poke salat, it was as though the Delphi Oracle had an Achilles heel and periodically went nutso, prophesying the advantages of reeking outhouses over modern blue-chemical-cleansed commodes. For it seemed to me that Grandpa actually preferred poke salat to anything naturally edible that might have been procured for a mere pittance at a grocery store. Now I was a child, and no connoisseur of vegetables, but I instinctively knew and was absolutely convinced that the awfullest spinaches, broccolis, cauliflowers, brussels sprouts and even turnip greens were infinitely to be desired over that ugliest, smelliest and nastiest of all things man ever contemplated ingesting: poke salat. Ugh!
In those days, and quite possibly still today, poke salat grew all over Tennessee like a haywire weed: a sort of pre-kudzu kudzu, free for the taking. But if something’s free, it comes with a catch. Even as a “whippersnapper,” as Grandpa called me, “berufflin’” my hair, I knew that. In our family, the catch was sturgeon-ugly: in order to be made edible, poke salat had to be boiled to a goopy-green, mucousy, unpalatable mess. The sight of it was sickening, and the smell was worse (think “scairt skunk”). I couldn’t see the point of looking for it, much less wrestling it out of the ground. And I “shore as all heck-n-hellfahr” wasn’t going to eat it. And so, although my two sisters would sometimes accompany Grandpa on his early morning forages in search of poke salat, I never did. If I wasn’t going to eat it, I wasn’t going to miss The Incredible Hulk or Space Ghost scouring the countryside for a plant so vile the local farmers fumigated it because it made their cows’ milk bitter!
But Grandpa loved poke salat, or so it seemed to me then, thinking back to a morning about twenty years ago . . . a morning when I sat up in bed, bleary-eyed, stretching and yawning, to confront windowpanes besmeared with drizzle. Thankful it was Saturday and I didn’t have to leap and wade puddles to catch the school bus, I lay lazily debating whether to watch cartoons, pester my sisters, or re-hibernate. As I mused bemusedly upon each alternative’s various attractions, I caught a glimpse of Grandpa in his bedroom across the hall, outrigging himself in raincoat and galoshes to go “pokin’” (in layman’s terms, slogging through wild, scraggly acres of mud, weeds and dangerously slick grass in search of his pet green). Just then it struck me that Grandpa Burch was hardly the salad type. A trucker for C. B. Ragland in the days when drivers did their own loading and unloading, reputed to have once single-handedly lifted the back end of his rig when his jack failed, he was a man spare and sharp as a railroad spike; and, like driven iron, the more life hammered at him, the fiercer he dug in. On the other hand, perhaps poke salat was his type: hardy, persistent, and once dug in, difficult to uproot . . .
As he trudged off a few minutes later, eldest granddaughter in tow, I imagined him plucking poke salat wherever it waited to be found–standing in damp green clumps by the side of the road, overflowing small ditches, straddling fence posts, mingling with weeds (where it would have stood perfectly camouflaged, looking like nothing so much as a weed itself!)
Perhaps an hour later, as I sat in the kitchen still clad in my Spidey pj’s, smacking down a sugary bowl of Cap’n Crunch, Grandpa reappeared with a garbage bag chock-full of poke salat slung over his shoulder, ready to lavish long hours preparing it for dinner. Catching my wince, he returned an exaggerated wink. We both knew it was unfit to eat in anything approaching its “natch’ruhl” state.
I can still hear his conspiratorial whisper—“No one knows that it’s there, lad, or that it’s fit to eat with some bacon drippin’s or lard!”—as though he had played a great trick on the universe, to be secretly preparing dark, rich, purloined greens while others invested entire legitimate fortunes in paler cabbages and cauliflowers.
But poke salat had to be rinsed and prepared just so, if one wished to avoid its many unpleasant side effects (it contains multiple toxins and is poisonous uncooked). “Dohn’ eat the berries. See, the berry’s no good. And you got to wash the leaves a good long time. Ahn’ I’d boil it twicst, less’n I wus ina hurry. Lord, it’s tough to eat, child, if’n it’s boiled jest wonst.”
After he had added some “flavorin’s” and set the pot a-boil a second time, we retreated to the shelter of the front porch swing, leaving the door propped slightly ajar with a handy brick. We did this “so’s we could listen in” on his pungent concoction’s percolating hiss without actually having to smell it.
The brick was a good idea. “Wouldn’t want that to boil over,” I thought sagely to myself, with all the accrued wisdom of my nine years. I had seen something like that happen to Mickey Mouse once, or was it Minnie? Ugh and double Ugh! Savoring thick slabs of watermelon commandeered from the “icebox,” we rocked back and forth in the “begroanin’” swing, and for the remainder of that damp but otherwise perfect morning, Grandpa regaled me, as he often did, with colorful tales of The Depression.
His favorite anecdote went something like this: “A farmer wus on desp’rate times. So’s he wrote a letter t’God, askin’ Him for two hundret dollurs t’save his farm. But he didn't know God’s address. So he sent the letter t’Hoover. Hoover felt sorry for the man, sent him a hundret bucks. A week or so’s later, Hoover gets a letter back. Dear God, it ses, thanks for takin’ pity on me, but next time, please send the money direckt. That crook Hoover done stole half Yer dough!”
At dinner that evening, I ignored the poke salat, as I invariably did anything smacking of superabundant B-12 and riboflavin. If Grandpa was offended, I didn’t notice. But he wasn’t a man to grouse much, unless it was about politics—usually the Republicans, especially Reagan.
Two decades passed, and although the years rushed by with increasing vigor, Grandpa remained stoically, almost heroically, unhurried. I can still see him mowing his yard at eighty-eight, stooped, no longer quite six-foot-two, but with an angular gray grace. Sometimes he’d pause to watch the neighborhood children chasing baseballs across his back yard, trampling his beans, dislodging the shoots of his tomato plants.
He never grew flowers.
His jokes about Hoover and The Depression flew right through the pierced ears of the kids who paused from retrieving balls and kites to accept his offers of sticks of Wrigley’s chewing gum. They would have preferred Bubblicious. “Hoover,” I heard one of them whisper, “Didn’t he invent the vacuum cleaner?”
Then one day approximately twenty years after that “mem’rable mornin’” when I first learned the nuancal art of detoxifying, if not demystifying, poke salat, I had my epiphany. Looking up the proper care of a leftover Christmas poinsettia in a book of herbs and flowers, I stumbled across phytolacca americana and its correct non-scientific name—“pokeweed.” Finally vindicated, I rang Grandpa and asked him why on earth anyone would voluntarily eat a weed.
I can still hear his bemused reply: “Well, lad, sometimes them times wus hard.”
Michael R. Burch has been published more than 3,000 times.
His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by three composers.
He also edits TheHyperTexts.