American Outdoor Guide
REMEMBERING EUELL GIBBONS
REMEMBERING ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC AND POPULAR PROPONENTS OF FORAGING
The man who brought foraging to mainstream America
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a wave of ecological and “back to the land” awareness swept the country. This period saw the rise of the incredibly popular Mother Earth News magazine, communes ... and Euell Gibbons. Euell Gibbons was a man of modest means who loved to fish and forage and always wanted to be a writer. Aspiring to be a novelist, his first work was about a man who tried to live off the land by eating common weeds that grow everywhere.
But Gibbons’ publisher told him to rewrite the book as a guidebook for identifying these wayside plants: Stalking the Wild Asparagus, first published in 1962, became a best-seller in the early 1970s, along with several other books.
By 1974, Gibbons began to capitalize on his popularity and became the frontman for Post Grape Nuts—a cereal that contained no grapes and no nuts (although Gibbons said it reminded him of wild hickory nuts). The Post company flew Gibbons around the country to make many of these commercials in diverse areas. Gibbons would be brandishing a pine cone, cattails or goldenrod flowers and would often be shown having cereal with a group at their outdoor breakfast table. Of course, they’d be eating Grape Nuts. The commercial would end with Gibbons’ final and famous line, “Reminds me of wild hickory nuts.”
Gibbons had somehow tapped into an ancient knowledge America was ready and hungry for—the knowledge of how to use the acres and acres of wild-growing plants that were both edible and medicinal. Not only did he share the ancient knowledge of Native Americans, he also shared the knowledge of wild plants from most of the world, because
the common weeds currently growing in North America originally came from Europe, as well as from Asia and Africa.
BY 1974, GIBBONS BEGAN TO CAPITALIZE ON HIS POPULARITY AND BECAME THE FRONTMAN FOR POST GRAPE NUTS—A CEREAL THAT CONTAINED NO GRAPES AND NO NUTS ...
Gibbons was born in Texas in 1911 and spent his childhood in northwestern New Mexico. He describes how his family moved from place to place with his father’s job. His income was sporadic.
At an early age, Gibbons began to collect wild greens and fruits to supplement the family’s meals. He was only 15 when he left home and took jobs as a cowboy and carpenter. He was living in California during the Dust Bowl, and he referred to himself as a hobo during that time.
Gibbons served in the Army and later worked as a carpenter and boat-builder. He was married, and divorced, describing his first marriage as a “casualty of the war.” By World War II, Gibbons
was living in Hawaii, building and repairing boats for the Navy. At 36, he entered the University of Hawaii as an anthropology student. It was there that he got more serious about writing and also met his second wife, Freda, whom he married in 1948.
By 1953, Gibbons and Freda moved to Pennsylvania, where he pursued his writing aspirations. His first book was published in 1962, and his books slowly grew in popularity. Once he began doing commercials for Post Grape Nuts in the early 1970s, the popularity of his books skyrocketed, and Gibbons became a household name.
Eventually, he was regularly seen on nearly every talk show in the country, especially Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Even when he wasn’t on the show, Carson joked about Gibbons’ use of wild foods so often that Gibbons became a household name.
Gibbons wrote two articles for National Geographic magazine, regular columns for various newspapers and magazines (such as Organic Gardening magazine) and lectured far and wide. Each of his books was very popular and included new information about foraging.
These books were, indeed, popular —partly because of his personality and partly because there were scant few books about how to identify and use wild plants at that time. And the side effect of being so popular was that he was the constant butt of all the popular comedians’ jokes. (Gibbons laughed all the way to the bank!)
THE FTC INTERVENES
In the summer of 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Gibbons’ commercials for Post Grape Nuts cereal off the air. Gibbons died later that year, on December 29, as a result of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, which was a complication of Marfan Syndrome.
Gibbons had a valuable message for America:
There is a ton of wild, nutritious food growing everywhere in this country that we could eat—but don’t. Gibbons believed the main reason Americans shun wild food is fear of ridicule if they stoop to gather weeds, which are generally regarded as suitable only for the trash can, not the dinner table.
The FTC ruling appeared to speak to a deeper fear: fear of the unknown. In the cereal commercials, Gibbons spoke of his years of foraging for wild food. “Ever eat a pine tree?” he asked in one spot. “Many parts are edible. Natural ingredients are important to me. That’s why Post Grape Nuts is part of my breakfast.”
The FTC objected to the apparent connection, especially how it might be interpreted by children. The ruling said that the commercials “undercut a commonly recognized safety principle— namely, that children should not eat any plants found growing in natural surroundings, except under adult supervision.”
Despite its good intentions, the FTC succeeded in generating a great wave of mistrust and
fear of all wild food—even though Gibbons stressed in his books and countless public appearances that you must never eat any plant or part of a plant until you recognize it as edible.
Shortly after the FTC ruling, local media latched onto two incidents in which teenagers who had been captivated by Gibbons’ livingoff-the-land philosophy became ill when they mistakenly ate toxic plants while foraging near the Angeles National Forest.
Gibbons’ death at the age of 64 seemed to seal his reputation as a “kook.” At worst, people suspected that he had accidentally poisoned himself; at best, it appeared that eating “natural” foods did not contribute to longevity. But those of us who saw the real
value of Gibbons’ teachings still feel he left us with a precious legacy.
HOW GIBBONS INFLUENCED ME
I first encountered Gibbons in 1972 through his writings. I was working in a local library at the time, and I would constantly check out his books and try to identify local plants. Excited and fascinated by Stalking the Wild Asparagus and his other books, I explored fields and woods across the country in search of wild edibles. I used some other books, as well, and took classes in botany in high school and attended lectures on ethnobotany whenever possible.
By 1974, a local nonprofit asked me to lead a wild-food outing to teach the subject, and I have continued to lead walks to teach about wild plants ever since.
When Gibbons came to town to give a lecture at Pasadena City College, I was asked to sit with him afterward while the press asked him questions (I was asked to sit there as “Pasadena’s Euell Gibbons”). He was a friendly, curious and open man. We chatted for the better part of an hour, our conversation ranging from carob pods to American Indians to compost. He told me of his plans for television documentaries about primitive societies that still live totally ecological lives. Gibbons said he hoped to show the modern world some of the follies of civilization.
One of these follies, he told me, is the persistence and the expenditure of so much time and money in attempting to eradicate from our yards and parks plants that have thrived for centuries. Some of the most common edible “intruders” are dandelion, Lambsquarters, pigweed, mallow, mustard and sow thistle. Among the most enduring of the wild plants that were brought to California in the westward migrations is chickweed. To even the most pampered palate, it is an incredibly good salad green, yet it often leads the list of “garden pests” in advertisements for herbicides. Other “enemies” highly valued by herbalists and naturalists are wild garlic, plantain, purslane and sour grass.
Many of the common wild plants have been used for centuries as herbal medicine and still have value for simple ailments. But, as with any medicinal ingredient, they can be harmful when abused.
In 1976, jimsonweed, which has been in California for thousands of years, became the target of an eradication program when some people erroneously popularized it as a cheap “high.” This was not the result of teens reading Euell Gibbons books but from teens reading works by Carlos Castañeda, another guru of the day who wrote about his “apprenticeship” with a Yaqui Indian
... which included the uses of jimsonweed. (Castañeda’s writings, although wildly popular and
very interesting, were demonstrated to be a combination of fabrication and plagiarism.)
So, while many people regarded the natural foods “craze” as a passing fad, others found much that is worthwhile in what Gibbons brought to the national attention. I know I do. Gibbons was just passing along something that our ancestors knew; something that is still a deeply respected tradition in many parts of even the “civilized” world, where scarce food is more prized than ornamental gardens.
Despite the ridicule of passersby, on almost any day in almost any park right here in the city, people still gather berries, cactus, mustard greens, chickweed and wild mushrooms. These wild foods are there for the taking. They grow in relative abundance and are much better for you than a lot of the processed junk sold in supermarkets.
Euell Gibbons and his many adherents deserve our admiration, not our mockery.
MANY OF THE COMMON WILD PLANTS HAVE BEEN USED FOR CENTURIES AS HERBAL MEDICINE AND STILL HAVE VALUE FOR SIMPLE AILMENTS. BUT, AS WITH ANY MEDICINAL INGREDIENT, THEY CAN BE HARMFUL WHEN ABUSED.