Finally, spring is in the air, and with it comes that old tradition of spring cleaning. After having the house shut up all winter, it is exhilarating and invigorating to air it out — perhaps except for the pollination season upon us.
’Tis the season to expel junk and clutter that naturally leads to a deep cleaning. In the holler, I still visualize women in their practical shoes, cotton dresses and long aprons, sweeping the yard.
There is another spring tradition of cleaning in the holler. It consisted of cleaning our physical bodies from the inside out. A spring tonic was in order for everyone, though as I think of it, I honestly don’t recall seeing any adults take a single dose.
The tonic varied according to what was available, from castor oil to poke sallet greens. Either one definitely cleaned your innards thoroughly. Sassafras tea was used by some — I actually loved the taste, and it never occurred to me that it was anything other than a treat.
Daddy dug sassafras roots (we actually have several trees on our property here), scrub then boil them to make a dark tea. It was liberally sweetened and sipped from the saucer as we poured small amounts into it from the teacup to cool quickly. That’s another story for another time.
Grandma said our blood thickened during the winter to keep us warm, and in the springtime, it needed to be thinned back out. Various methods were employed, so I’ll share what I recall from my early years.
Daddy said, “Get me a poke.” I would get a big, brown paper grocery sack, and we headed outside. Living on the side of a mountain, everything as far as I could see was green except when the blue sky or some clouds peaked over the mountain tops around midday.
At one time, under his tutorship, I recognized and named dozens of edible greens. My favorite was plantain. It was later I discovered that it was similar in texture and taste to collard greens — but hey, it was free for the taking.
Using his pocket knife, he cut the plants out near the roots getting as much of the intact plant as possible while I held the poke as it grew heavier. He didn’t like to quit until it was only 2 or 3 inches from the top. It takes a lot of greens to cook down into a good mess.
He taught me the difference between curly, sour, purple and speckled dock. There were a couple of other docks, too, but their names currently escape me. We foraged for dandelion greens, white blossom, wild lettuce, wild mustard (some called it turkey mustard), tangle gut, crow’s foot and more. Some called wild mustard “chicken mustard” or “hen mustard.” Regardless of the name, it was good eating, especially following a long winter of what had been put by that didn’t include much fresh food.
Poke sallet was saved for another time to cook alone, as the method was a bit different. It needed to be boiled and drained a couple of times, but it did have the reputation of “cleaning you out.” Be gone to those winter cobwebs.
After umpteen washings and sorting, the greens were cooked down in a big cooker (that was Mom’s name for any cooking vessel other than a skillet) on the old, black cook stove. When it was decreed to be done, she drained and fried them in bacon grease. They were typically served with a side of fried potatoes, cornbread served in a whole pone that each of us broke a piece off of and raw onion. A cool glass of sweet or buttermilk washed it all down.
Some of the women in the holler — all my kin, of course — used their aprons or dress tails to form a huge pocket to fill with greens. It was a frequent sight, especially in the spring before the greens matured too much and became bitter.
One image I recall is Mom hanging clothes on the line, then gathering nearby greens between loads.
Some folks called poke sallet the best spring tonic, because it gave everyone such a case of the backdoor trots or green apple two-step. They said it cleaned their systems out like a bear losing its winter plug. Most of these folks lived to around 90, so they apparently did something right, even with all the lard and butter they ingested.
We ate many other things that city folks especially might be surprised by, but we survived like Hank Jr. sang about — country folk will survive — and were also as clean as a whistle.