Dispatches | April 24, 2013

euell-gibbons-teaching-survival-course-at-boys-camp

I have been talking about Euell Gibbons a lot lately.  Too much, really. People are starting to give me funny looks, their eyes are glazing over.  All signs it is a good time to write a blog post about the man—am-I-right?  My thesis: we all need to read his books, and not just for the usual Earth Day—back to nature—reasons, but for those too.

Maybe he’s on my mind because it’s spring here in Missouri (scratch that, it snowed this morning) or maybe it’s because Earth Day was this past Monday, and almost definitely it is because I have become something of a Gibbons acolyte.  But I keep bothering people with stories about the famous Grape Nuts spokesman and expert on all things wild and edible.  I tell his stories like I knew him, despite the fact that he died a decade before I was born, and he deserves the credit for that.

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His fairly famous books, once perennial bestsellers, (most famously, Stalking the Wild Asparagus 1962) are, for me, a surprising hybrid of modes of nonfiction. And he might just be my favorite writer in the CNF genre, though I doubt he gets mentioned in that category very often.  In Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop, he moves quickly from a discussion of the merits of fishing for what others pass up, to memories of catching dogfish on days off when he was newly married and selling their livers for more than he made at his weekday job, to a how-to on properly cleaning them, to (admittedly my favorite part) his recipe for beer-battered dogfish—his personal favorite version of fish and chips.

When my father first sent me a copy of his work, I dug into the books, reading them as field-guide first. The result was my wife putting on a smile when I made boiled and buttered periwinkles and my grandmother making frequent grumbled references to the time I baked chicory root for four hours on an eighty-degree July day and then never actually got around to making that chicory coffee.  There were some good meals in there too—his stuffed clams has become my family’s go to for the palm-sized Rhode Island quahogs we rake up.

But as I kept reading the books, it was the stories that stayed with me.  Foraging to survive as a youth during the Great Depression, stampeding carp from horseback then being at a loss on how to cook the resulting bounty, finding wild asparagus and eating it for days in the early spring—here Gibbons notes how difficult it is for those reading him now to understand how incredible it was to taste that first fresh green flavor after the long winter.

Or when he gets angry from reflecting—first as a foodie at the uniquely American ability to sneer at unusual foods (this precedes a recipe for Woodchuck in Sour Cream) and later as a fisherman at the fact that he gets skunked every time he goes out after American Eel, despite catching them like crazy when fishing for anything else.  I get very nostalgic reading the latter example, having in a couple decades of coastal fishing, never pulled an eel up or even seen them caught in any number.  It is all too easy when reading his books, to note the way the world has since changed, and rarely for the better.

So in the spirit of Earth Day, I hope I may have convinced someone new to read Euell Gibbons as a great writer and environmentalist, as a cook and botanist and fisherman and cultural critic and historian.  And to take his books outside with them and adjust their eyes to scan for the green and brown of something work cooking up hiding in the leaf-litter.  I happen to know that my Contest-Co Editor Claire McQuerry found an early morel mushroom last Saturday despite the cold here in Columbia.  Thanks Euell!

And eat your Grape Nuts.  Word has it they taste like wild hickory nuts.

 

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