Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wild hickory nuts

Today is my sixtieth birthday. This momentous event has put me in mind of the many unique and interesting people with whom I have had the good fortune to have shared some time. Here's a short remembrance sparked by a recent event.

Merry and I made our first expedition into the Ozarks two weekends ago. We spent two sunny warm autumn days exploring and stayed overnight at Rock Eddy Bluff Farm near Dixon, Missouri. Our accommodation was an old-fashioned log cabin complete with luxury outhouse, gravity feed sink, gas stove and solar powered LED lights. The broad porch overlooks a deep hollow leading down to the Gasconade River. Sitting on the porch in the late afternoon sun we were surrounded by a forest of tan leaves of many hues from the various oak trees with a few hickories mixed in.

On our walk to the river I discovered a spot where freshly fallen hickory nuts covered the ground. Merry gathered some to take home. This put me in a mind of how I came to meet Euell Gibbons.

Back in the fall of 1967 I was attending Bucknell University as a sophomore history major. My roommate for that semester was Eric Jones. Where I grew up (Hanover, PA) there was no one like Eric. Eric was a full-fledged Quaker from Philadelphia. He had shaggy hair and wore handmade sandals with socks, all the time, everywhere, in all weather. He talked about the Philadelphia Folk Festival and coffee houses. He introduced me to what he termed “real folk music," in other words, something besides the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. He had attended private Quaker schools in Philadelphia and invited me to the local Friends Meeting. I was not particularly interested.

Not interested until he casually mentioned that about once a month after Friends Meeting Euell Gibbons led a hike to gather wild foods followed by a “wild dinner.”

I knew about Euell Gibbons from my Boy Scout days. I had read and re-read his classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I loved his folksy style and the way he expressed his clear affection for the outdoors. I did not know he lived in Central Pennsylvania. I jumped at the chance to meet him.

A few weeks later I went to a Quaker meeting for the first time with Eric. It was not what I expected. After a few minutes sitting quietly one person after the other stood to talk about their favorite Bible verse or their interpretation of their faith. I had thought Quakers just meditated until the spirit moved them These Quakers were downright talky.

I looked around the room but didn't see anyone that looked remotely like what I imagined Euell Gibbons to look like. After the service a tall, gaunt man stood and invited anyone who wanted to go along for a walk to meet him outside. It was a cool sunny late fall day. I remember we walked along a railroad track outside of town. Euell seemed to know the name of every plant. Every few feet he would stop, pick up a plant, explain what it was and how it could be eaten. We gathered what edible plants we could find and put them in buckets. At the end of the walk the buckets were taken back to Euell's farm where we all pitched in to make a big salad, soup and some roasted root vegetables.

I went on several of these walks during that year. I got to know Euell fairly well. It surprised me that he smoked cigarettes and that pizza was his favorite food. At that time he had just recently become a minor celebrity. Until his “Stalking” books became a success he led a pretty hard life. His wild food hobby had started as a real necessity during the dust bowl when his family lived in New Mexico. He claimed to have bummed around the country after leaving home as a hobo for years. He was a long time lefty in the Woody Guthrie vein. He and his wife were steadfast members of the Quakers and of the local peace movement. I remember him as a pretty humble man who never did much to make himself stand out.

A few years after I graduated I was pleasantly surprised to see that Euell had been invited to write a couple of articles for the National Geographic and that he appeared on television on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on Sonny and Cher. I was a bit surprised to find him pitching Grape Nuts in a TV commercial in 1974 during which he uttered a phrase I never forgot. When describing the taste of Grape Nuts he said in his Will Rogers voice, “Reminds me of wild hickory nuts.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XJMIu18I8Y My friends and I laughed. Some moaned that Euell had “sold out.” Personally I knew he had lived a hard and principled life. I was happy he had achieved some small measure of fame and economic success.

Euell died in 1975 from an aneurysm secondary to his Marfan’s syndrome. Although it's been more than 40 years since I met him, I still hear his voice and feel his influence every time I take a walk in the woods.

1 comment:

  1. Your story about Euell Gibbons brought back some very pleasant memories of my grandmother. I think my grandmother knew every edible plant there was, when to pick it, and how to cook it.

    When I was young, grandma could always count on me to go berry picking with her. But I wasn’t as enthusiastic about picking (or eating) weeds (or some of the other vegetables that she actually planted on purpose).

    As I got older, I began to understand from grandma’s stories that her “weed-eating tendencies” were born from necessity. She didn’t just wake up one morning and think “Hmmm. I think I will eat a weed today.”

    Grandma had so many stories to tell. One of my favorites was how she had thrown a rock at Teddy Roosevelt. She didn’t actually throw a rock AT him. But she went to listen to him at a whistle stop, and was disappointed in the sound of his voice. As a young girl she had always imagined the President to have a deep booming voice. So when she heard him speak, she was disappointed, and threw a rock at the train as it pulled away.

    And like Euell, she had her “story.”

    It is odd that grandma never really seemed poor to me, though she apparently was. I guess it was because she always had everything she actually needed, and seemed to have everything she wanted. I knew she didn’t have a lot of money. But I never thought of her as being “poor.”

    But I know I started buying her avocados when she forgot the name of them one day, and referred to them as “you know…those green things that used to be cheap, but now they are expensive.”

    But I also remember grandma inheriting quite a bit of money when she was 93 years old. And I had the honor of accompanying her on her life-long dream of going on a trip on a riverboat. It was a three day trip on the Mississippi Queen.

    We had a cabin with bunk beds. I expressed concern that the top bunk didn’t seem too sturdy and I was afraid I would fall on her in the middle of the night. She told me, “Don’t worry about it. If that happens, I’ll die happy.”

    The boat had a photographer and you could buy any of the pictures they took. At the end of the trip, grandma bought about ten pictures that had either her or I, or both of us, in them.

    She told me “That is the first time in my life I ever bought something without asking how much it cost first. I bought them just because I wanted them.”

    She was 93. They were pictures. But I am glad she had at least one moment in her life of buying something just because she wanted it.

    As she lived to be 102, she may have had other moments after that. I am not sure. I do know that she called Publisher’s Clearing House and requested that they stop sending her sweepstakes entries because she already had more money than she needed and she didn’t care to win any more. I took that to be a good sign.