Black with Pepper

Collected and Edited by Gary Wright


Everybody is ignorant, just on different subjects‘— Will Rogers

Some sayings, you only hear in the South, and sometimes even Southerners have never heard them. There are also things people down here eat — like Poke Salat — that some of the southern folks I know have never heard of. But never discount the value of something until you understand its source, “‘cause there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

 “And it was just BLACK with pepper.” Well, it’s one of those ole time southern phrases that means that a particular food wasn’t very tasty, therefore, the consumer used a lot of black pepper to remedy the blandness. The meaning, though, is much more profound. In the so called ‘good old days, so many Southerners were abjectly poor that they — of necessity — ate the absolute poorest cuts of meat, such as pork fat back, ham hocks, pork brains, chicken fingers, (the real ones) and the cheaper cuts of beef. When they were lucky, they would supplement their fare with ’possum, ’coon, squirrels, rabbits, and feral pigs. The meat was usually boiled to make it palatable, or, at least, edible. Home-grown herbs, spices, and pepper, especially black pepper, were used to give it the slightest flavor.

 Never heard of it? Well, Poke Salat is a green vegetable similar to spinach, mustard greens, and turnip greens that’s not only tasty, but it’s downright healthy eating. A Southern favorite, it consists of the crisp leaves stripped from the poke berry stalk. The poke berry grows wild around old farm houses, barns, fence rows, and in places especially high in fertilize where cattle and horse provide manure.

The greens are quite strong in taste and should be cooked at least three times by boiling and then draining each time to soften the taste somewhat.  If not prepared thusly, the brew is toxic to mammals because of alkaloids in the plant. It’s normally cooked with a generous helping of fatback for seasoning, and should be served with vinegar from pepper sauce, which is available on every thoughtful Southerner’s dinner table.

Though delicious and a common sight on some Southern dinner and supper tables, I can’t recall ever seeing poke berry growing in any Southern garden and, in fact, I’ve never seen poke berry seeds for sale in any garden seed catalog. It is picked wild, only. Incidentally, the poke berry stains anything it touches, so it used to mark cotton-picking sacks so they didn’t get mixed up at picking time.

“You can bake your under pants in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits.” Often said of politicians’ promises or Yankee peddlers, the saying means that you can call it whatever you want to, but it is what it is.

“Boy Howdy, you ought to see her cut a rug!” This has nothing at all to do with laying carpet or with designing Afghan throws. It refers to her dancing ability, and, man, oh man, can she ever dance! Her dancing is so precise and her moves are made so swiftly, that wearing new store-bought shoes with sharp leather soles, I’m afraid she’s gonna cut a slice out of the carpet. If you’re confused, this is a genuine compliment.

“A month of Sundays” is a long time. If you count one Sunday as a day, then the following week would have to be tacked on as well. That means that one day in a Southern-speak week consists of seven days. Therefore a month of Sundays would constitute 30 or 31 weeks, depending on which month, or, if February, then it could be 28 or 29 weeks, depending on whether you are referring to a leap year. I should have warned you that Southern-speak can sometimes be vexing and one should be math-inclined.

“Y’all are welcome to stay the night. We don’t have extra beds, but I’m sure we can find a nail to hang you on.” These barbed words are intended for company who have grossly overstayed their welcome and the family needs to get to bed. This would be said instead of what they were really thinking: “Bout time for you to go home, ain’t it?” Of course, it wouldn’t be hospitable to be that crass, so, most southerners would just wait it out until the company finally got tired themselves.

“Me and my brother picked cotton for thirty years one fall!” There’s hardly anything more insurmountable than just you and your little brother, Clem, looking across thirty acres of endless, glistening, white cotton, knowing that the two of you, alone, have to pick it! It’s an especially onerous task when you’re ten years old at the time but are now looking back through thirty years of time. Maybe you haven’t had to pick thirty acres of cotton and maybe you don’t even have a little brother named Clem, but you know what I mean.

Ain’t no watermelon quite so sweet as one what is stole. Though it purports, on its face, to suborn theft, it actually has a deeper meaning akin to the theme of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ It actually connotes the idea that anything that’s obtained free of charge is better than when it’s bought.

Some of these old adages may have you “lost as last year’s Easter egg,” and you may think some of them “are about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.” I, however, don’t “have a dog in this fight,” so it’s “six of one and a half dozen of the other” whether you use any of them or not, but if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.”




Poke Salat image from Google images and Randy Tindall

Cotton field image from Google images