Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Suggestion of Madness: Euell Gibbons

New Mexico, 1926. The Dust Bowl has held the state in its grip for over a year now, and where there is no water, there is no work. The head of the Gibbons household is riding the rails, looking for employment. Weeks pass; no word. Back in New Mexico, his family are down to one egg. No-one will touch it.

So fifteen-year-old Euell throws a gunny sack over his shoulder and heads for the hills. Forty years later, he would muse, "Wild food has meant different things to me at different times. Right then it was... a way to keep from dying."

Euell Gibbons packed a lot of living into his sixty-four years. By turns a carpenter, cowboy, trapper, prospector, hobo, labour organiser, vaudevillian, soldier, boatbuilder, mental ward orderly, beachcomber, teacher, student, and novelist, he was also, at various times, a Southern Baptist, a Communist, an alcoholic, and a Quaker. Along the way he married twice, and lived in every region and many states of the US. But the thread that wound through all of his adventures was foraging. Sometimes he hunted wild foods for the challenge, sometimes for variety. In Hawai'i, flat broke and living in a mat-walled shack, he threw sumptuous parties with food collected from the beach and jungle. And sometimes, Gibbons foraged just to stay alive. That bleak day in New Mexico, young Euell fed himself, his mother, and three siblings on rabbit, wild garlic, wild potatoes, and puffballs. With prickly pears for dessert.

Ultimately, more by accident than design, Gibbons became the world's leading authority on wild foods. Bulrushes, wintercress, coltsfoot, mulberries -- it was all money in the bank to him. Thanks to his peregrinations, he could find a meal in any field, forest, or vacant lot in North America. In his first book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons advanced the startling suggestion that wild edibles are not merely survival rations, but gourmet fare. "On the whole," he explained, "people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spend so much time exterminating." Asparagus, published in 1962, and the short shelf of volumes that followed, kinked a final twist into a lifetime of bumps and grinds: the skills Gibbons acquired to weather poverty and rejection, made him rich and famous.

Gibbons' philosophy dovetailed nicely with the "back to the land" movement of the 1960s, and his exploits made good copy. He speared carp with a pitchfork from horseback. He pit-roasted a Georgia pig, Polynesian style, with a side of palm hearts. He produced haute cuisine from Central Park weeds. He foraged on the White House lawn.

By November 1967, his name had become a household word. In that month, writer John McPhee accompanied Gibbons on a six-day trek through the Pennsylvania hills, fuelled by foraged food alone. In spite of the inhospitable season, they gained weight. In a memorable New Yorker article, McPhee reverently proclaimed that Gibbons' passion for found food held "a suggestion of madness".

Euell Gibbons' celebrity, barely conceivable in our time, rested on the incredible breadth of his experience and his skill at sharing it with others. His writing, still fresh half a century later, blends technical precision with anecdotes about his successes and failures, and the fine points of practice that come only of first-hand experience. Of his first knotweed pie, he confides, "the less said, the better". He ponders whether the strength-building reputation of burdock isn't due to the effort required to dig it up. His many wine recipes are attributed to a "drinking uncle"; he himself, he says pointedly, doesn't drink.

Even in stardom, Gibbons remained remarkably grounded. He continued to forage, though he told McPhee he'd learned not to admit it to onlookers, because they'd insist on feeding him. He attended his Quaker meeting and taught Outward Bound. Most of all, he made foraging acceptable to the mainstream. If books on wild edibles (including my own) continue to sell, it's because Euell taught us that weeds are good.

(A version of this article originally appeared in The Herb Companion. Signed and dedicated copies of The Neighborhood Forager, my guide to wild edibles, can be had by contacting me directly. Unsigned copies can be purchased from Amazon.)
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