A Suggestion of Madness

Read about the fascinating legacy of Euell Gibbons

| October/November 2002

  • Burdock
  • Dandelion

  • Photo by Edelene Wood
  • Lamb’s-quarters
  • Purslane

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.”

Money in the bank

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.

An enduring voice

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.

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