Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Euell Gibbons – Where The Wild Foods Are – Birthday Tribute




“We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good, but people are beginning to suspect we have paid a high spiritual price for our plenty.”  -- Euell Gibbons


Yesterday afternoon, while indulging an indecently blue mood (i.e., it’s still summer, the sun was shining, I’m alive and basically healthy and have many, many things to be happy about and grateful for), I semi-lifted my spirits by exploring my bookshelves in more detail than I have since moving into this house several years ago and simply cramming them full of books according to size order only.
Our library comprises several lives:  my own, Caroline’s, those of my parents, and the mystery volumes that must have been placed on the shelves by aliens.  On one shelf I found a book I had never seen called The New York City Wildlife Guide by Edward Ricciuti (New York, Schocken Books, 1984), which acted as balm from Gilead for what ailed me.  Lately, my trips into Manhattan have been largely unpleasant affairs, bad encounters with an uncaring abrasive concrete jungle.  To learn about the bufflehead and the history of cormorants and other animals and plants we scarcely think about within the city borders was incredibly uplifting.  It shifted my mind to a better place and stimulated constructive thoughts, including composing an ACRAVAN page in tribute to the late Euell Gibbons, American naturalist, writer and forager (September 8, 1911 – December 29, 1975) and wild foods pioneer.
  
Today, September 8th, is Euell Gibbons’ birthday.  Here is a short biography, excepted from The Handbook Of Texas Online:
GIBBONS, EUELL THEOPHILUS (1911–1975). Euell Gibbons, naturalist and television personality, son of Ely (Eli) Joseph and Laura (Bowers) Gibbons, was born into a Baptist family at Clarksville, Texas, on September 8, 1911. The three Gibbons boys and their sister learned about wild foods from their mother. Gibbons concocted menus and wrote about foraging. In 1922 the family moved to a New Mexico farmstead. Euell provisioned them by foraging, hunting, and trapping whenever his father was away. At fifteen he left home, working towards California and the Pacific Northwest, where, by 1933, he lived in bum camps, foraged, and did manual labor. While in the army, 1934–36, he married Anna Swanson (on September 12, 1935); they had two sons. Gibbons joined the Communist party sometime during the 1930s but left it about 1940 and later called himself a "left-wing Democrat." In Hawaii during World War II, he worked in a shipyard. With the war over, Gibbons, a divorcé and conscientious objector, turned to beachcombing. He completed high school and attended the University of Hawaii from 1947 to 1950; he earned money by composing crossword puzzles in Hawaiian.


 
On December 17, 1949, he married Freda Fryer. They taught on Maui until 1953, joined the Quakers, and then left Hawaii and taught at various schools in the eastern and midwestern United States. In 1953–54 they taught at a New Jersey Quaker school before moving to a midwestern cooperative community. In 1955, while employed at Pendle Hill School near Philadelphia, Gibbons began writing about edible plants. Freda promised to support them while he wrote full-time, and they moved nearby to Tanguy Homesteads. Gibbons had written verse and short stories; now he completed a novel, but his editors advised him, "Take the novel out. Leave the wild food in." He did so, and McKay published Stalking the Wild Asparagus in 1962, after which Gibbons was established as the master of his field.
In 1963 the Gibbonses moved to a farm named It Wonders Me at Troxelville, Pennsylvania. Gibbons wrote six more books "lauding nature's harvests" and taught foraging. With a voice something like that of Will Rogers, Gibbons became famous doing Grape-Nuts television commercials. He helped mold environmental thought, condemned wastefulness and reliance upon technology, and urged life in harmony with nature like that attributed to American Indians. Susquehanna University awarded him an honorary degree in 1972. Gibbons died in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, on December 29, 1975, of arteriosclerosis.
 

Wild asparagus in Austria

When I was a kid, I thought of Gibbons (mostly through Mad magazine satires and similar material) as sort of a silly "joke person" who wrote a series of books with eccentric titles.  When I was a little bit older, I found his Tonight show appearances with Johnny Carson amusing and increasingly intriguing.  When I was out of college and a little more able to take things seriously and see them in a historical context, I found Gibbons and his books (and, of course, their titles) fascinating and purchased a number of them at the now-defunct (and greatly missed)  Bryn Mawr Bookshop on East 79th Street in Manhattan.  Mostly, I skimmed them for lore and recipes, which replaced other literature as my preferred reading matter for quite a while by the time I was in my 30s.
  Wild dandelions saute
Wild asparagus in Ibiza
The three biographical details I find most interesting are Gibbons’ ability to and enterprise in composing crossword puzzles in Hawaiian to earn money, his association with the Quakers and work at Pendle Hill (we are a Quaker family and I am shocked never to have read about or heard mentioned in Quaker literature Gibbons’ Quaker membership or work), and his beginnings as a writer and his editor’s advice to "Take the novel out. Leave the wild food in."  I guess that’s how careers are sometimes made.
I have included a short Gibbons bibliography, some photographs of Gibbons and wild asparagus plants, a photo of a "dandelion fry-up", as well as a wild asparagus recipe from Istria that I found online (not Gibbons’ recipe), which includes the well-known Croatian commercial spice mixture called Vegeta.  (I thought it made sense to include the recipe exactly as written; Vegeta, if you desire to purchase it, can be found on Amazon.com and through other sources.)  Initially, I planned not to picture the blue-eyed scallop who gives his name to Gibbons’ famous seafood-foraging volume,  Stalking The Blue-Eyed Scallop, but the scallop is a fascinating, incredibly beautiful creature, and seeing him reminds you that life and “survival” are simultaneously breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Blue-eyed scallop
 
Because Gibbons was clearly a maverick, a passionate man and a clear thinker, I wonder what his impression would be of our current politics?  Particularly, I wonder whether he would be able to detect any meaningful difference in the context of our current U.S. political system between so-called “crony capitalism” and crony socialism (a term I’ve never heard used, but one that could easily find currency)?  I imagine that, as Rudyard Kipling counseled, Gibbons would treat those two imposters just the same.  Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss. 

But I’m getting far afield in my stalking. 

Happy birthday, Euell Gibbons!
A Euell Gibbons Bibliography
  • Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962)
  • Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop (1964)
  • Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966)
  • Stalking the Good Life (1966)
  • Beachcomber's Handbook (1967)
  • A Wild Way To Eat (1967) for the Hurricane Island
  • Stalking the Faraway Places (1973)
  • Feast on a Diabetic Diet (unknown publication date)

 


Croatian Fritaja With Wild Asparagus

600 grams wild asparagus
200 grams onion
1/2 teaspoon pepper
8 eggs
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Vegeta

1. Wash the asparagus.  Separate the soft part off the stem with the tips and break it into smaller parts.
2.  Briefly saute finely chopped onion in oil. Add prepared asparagus, salt and pepper and saute until asparagus becomes soft.
3.  Add stirred eggs and Vegeta, additionally stirring and bake until done at 350 degrees F.



Serve immediately with home-made bread.  Add grated goat or sheep cheese as desired.









5 comments:

  1. he was a friend and great man sweet caring and very very good friend im Daryl Smith and knew Euell in 1966 and 1967 when he was doing 2 books we talked alot and would help him with the 2 books telling him thinks i knew about what he was writing about at that time i lived in Williamsport PA. AND LOVED HIM AS A VERY GOOD FRIEND

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  2. Thank you so much for writing, Daryl. I grew up aware of Euell Gibbons, but gradually became a great admirer and fan. Before reading your comment this morning, I was actually thinking of ways to reform my diet and outlook that would reflect his thinking more. Best wishes for 2011. Curtis Roberts

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  3. My mother met Euell on Hurricane Island (Maine) back in 1965 and became close friends with him. He taught her much about wild edibles and she in turn taught me. Thanks for the tribute to this great man.

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  4. Helen: Thanks very much. I always enjoy it when someone finds this and lets me know something new about him; he really was a great man. I hope you visit here again soon. I try to cover a variety of subjects. Curtis Roberts

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  5. We will be celebrating Euell Gibbons' 100th birthday this September at our 44th annual wild foods conference at North Bend State Park in Cario, WV. This program was initiated by Edelene Wood and Gibbons in 1968 and Gibbons attended until his death in 1976. Edelene Wood continues as President of The National Wild Foods Association and has been the "driver" of this program over the decades. Edelene was a good friend of Gibbons and his wife Freda. This conference is the longest running annual wild foods event in North America and provides education and experience in finding, processing, and feasting on edible wild plants and other foragables in a beautiful park setting in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains which Gibbons referred to as The Garden of Eden for its diversity of wild foods.Check it out at www.northbendsp.com.

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