Euell Gibbons’ legacy turns forty.
New Mexico, 1926. The dust bowl has held the state in its grip for more than a year. Where there is no water, there is no work, so the senior Gibbons has left to search for employment. Weeks pass; no word. His family is down to one egg. No one will touch it.
So fifteen-year-old Euell throws a sack over his shoulder and heads for the distant 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.”
Gibbons packed a lot of living into his sixty-four years. He was a carpenter, cowboy, trapper, prospector, hobo, labor organizer, vaudevillian, soldier, boat builder, mental ward assistant, beachcomber, teacher, student, and writer. 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 throughout the continental United States and Hawaii. The single thread that wound through all of his adventures was foraging. Sometimes he hunted wild herbs for the challenge, sometimes for variety. In Hawaii, 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, for example, young Euell fed 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 foremost authority on wild foods. Cattails, wintercress, coltsfoot, mul- berries—it was all money in the bank to Gibbons. Thanks to his peregrinations, he could find a meal in any field, forest, or vacant lot on the continent. In his first book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay, 1962), he advanced the startling suggestion that wild herbs are not merely survival rations, but gourmet fare. “On the whole,” Gibbons wrote, “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 appeared in 1962, and kinked a final twist into a lifetime of bumps and grinds—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, Hawaiian style, with a side of palm hearts. He produced haute cuisine from Central Park weeds and foraged on the White House grounds.
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, fueled 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 wild herbs held “a suggestion of madness.”
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 four decades later, blends technical instructions with anecdotes about his successes and failures, and the finer points of harvest and preparation that come only from firsthand knowledge. Of his first knot-weed pie, he confides, “the less said, the better.” He ponders whether the strength-building reputation of burdock root isn’t due to the effort required to dig it out of rocky ground. His many wine recipes are attributed to a drinking uncle; he himself, he points out, doesn’t drink.
Even in stardom, Gibbons remained remarkably grounded. He continued to forage, although 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 wild herbs appear in the pages of this magazine, it’s because Gibbons assured us that weeds are good.
Take a moment to observe the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Eat something you didn’t plant.
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