The Father of Modern Wild Foods
Euell’s classic books, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, “Stalking the Healthful Herbs”, and “Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop”, are filled with real-life experiences in a countrified story-telling style that’s informative, fun, and endearing.
Euell was born in 1911 in Clarksville Texas, not far from the Oklahoma and Arkansas borders – the area comprising the Red River Valley. He spent most of his teens in the hill country of New Mexico, and learned lots about wild foods from his mother.
Here is an interesting account provided by John McPhee of Euell’s New Mexico, dust-bowl era years with his family:
His father left in a desperate search for work. The food supply diminished until all that was left were a few pinto beans and a single egg, which no one would eat. Euell, then teen-aged and one of four children, took a knapsack one morning and left for the Horizon mountains. He came back with puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and fruits of yellow prickly pear. For nearly a month, the family lived wholly on what he provided - anonymous
As an adult Euell Gibbons lived in many states including California, Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, Indiana, and finally in Pennsylvania. On his visit to Hawaii from 1947 to 1951, he met and married Freda Fryer. Euell longed to be a fiction writer but evidently could not get published.
During his lifelong travels he was a cowboy, hobo, carpenter, surveyor, boat builder, beachcomber, newspaperman, school teacher, farmer, and an educator. All along, building on the wild food foundation he got from his mother. My impression, from his writings, is that he learned a lot from his hobo days. Those days where he foraged both from society and nature to acquire his sustenance.
He would visit libraries to research wild foods. He would become acquainted with people in small towns and ask them about their uses of wild foods. He would seek out local experts and exchange information. And finally, he would experiment and invent new ways to process wild foods. His family, friends, and neighbors were the taste-testing guinea pigs for new recipes he would invent.
His first book in 1962, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, became an instant hit. The content evidently touching a chord with a burgeoning back-to-nature movement. This and his next two books (See reviews of Euell’s best three books) were packed with information on how to find, gather, and prepare wild foods. Many magazine articles followed, either written by or about Euell. He wrote for Organic Gardening and Farming, National Geographic, and National Wildlife Magazines, among others.
Euell Gibbons helped found, and was a charter member of such groups as the National Wild Food Association (West Virginia), Foraging Friends (Chicago), and I’m sure many others. By 1971, Euell’s books became more philosophical and less about wild foods – all still good reads. Even though he had only a sixth-grade education, Euell was awarded an honorary doctorate from Susquehanna University.
As he received more literary notoriety, Euell became somewhat of a celebrity. He made appearances on talk shows (The Johnny Carson Show), variety shows (The Sonny & Cher show), and television commercials for Post Grape Nuts cereal. Euell displayed a great sense of humor. At one point, to everyone’s surprise, he began eating a wooden plaque awarded him on the Sonny and Cher television show. The plaque was really a prop made out of wafer cookies or some other edible substance.
This fame was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it had the effect of exposing more people to the topic of wild foods. On the other, Euell became ridiculed by many of his readers/followers who felt like he sold out to big business and the commercial world. To many, he was reduced from a respected naturalist icon to a laughable pitch-man for a cereal company. To those in the know, however, he remained a respected naturalist.
His last residence was in Beavertown, Pennsylvania, where he lived with Freda until his death on December 29, 1975. He was 64. Euell died of a heart attack. It was probably a result of cardiovascular disease complicating a pre-existing condition called Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome would have made his aorta more susceptible to a catastrophic bursting. Euell had a smoking habit and regularly, as can be seen in his writings, added saturated fats (bacon grease, butter, egg yolks) to his vegetables. In Euell’s day it was not unusual to smoke cigarettes or to add high amounts of saturated fat to foods. These risk factors combined with his hard life and lack of exercise in his later years (arthritis pain limited his movement) undoubtedly contributed to his death.
Euell’s legacy is the treasure of lifelong experiences and knowledge he left us regarding foraging and unusual culinary delights. Boston University is maintaining a collection of his personal journal entries and notes, and Alan Hood has reprinted his first three books.
Euell, more than anyone else in North American history, got people thinking, talking, and eating wild foods. Many wild food writers give us the menu, Euell gave us the meal.
This biography was first published in the November 1998 issue of the Wild Food Adventurer™ newsletter and is currently brought to you by John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures ™. The Wild Food Adventurer ™ newsletter was a quarterly “publication” that disseminated North American edible wild plant information, research, and notice of educational events. Topics involve plants found anywhere in North America.
Author’s note #1 (March 7, 1999): The information in this article was compiled from obituaries, John McPhee’s remembrance, book-jacket biographies, personal reports, and from my interpretation of his fame and writings. I, unfortunately, never got to meet Mr. Gibbons and hope that the information here is representative and accurate.
Author’s note #2 (July 17, 2008): Since writing this article, several of Euell’s surviving relatives have contacted me. All expressed appreciation for its overall affectionate tone and accuracy. None have contradicted any of the content.
Author’s note #3 (July 17, 2008): Detail on cause of death is included here to squelch rumors. Fabricated causes of death typically originate from the imaginations of comedians, writers, and celebrities in the areas of food or diet. Rumors I personally heard ranged from eating a poisonous plant to choking on a wild food sandwich. I felt that facts must be available somewhere to counter the rumors. And while the information I present may disappoint some (who wants to hear that a naturalist was a smoker?), readers should not view the past with today’s sensibilities. Gibbons was born more than one hundred years ago. That was before there was radio, television, talking films, commercially available sliced bread, antibiotics, or World war I. He died before the personal computer was invented, before Walkmans, and before Jimmy Carter was president. Euell’s generation had different perceptions than we do today.