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Stalking the Wild Asparagus

(article, Euell Gibbons)

h3. From the introduction: “Some Thoughts on Wild Food”

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] Why bother with wild foods in a country which produces a surplus of many domestic food products? With as much reason, one might ask, why go fishing for mountain trout when codfish fillets are for sale in any supermarket? Or why bother with hunting-and-game cookery when unlimited quantities of fine meat can be purchased at any butcher counter?

Why do millions of Americans desert their comfortable and convenient apartments and split-level houses for a time each year to go camping under comparatively primitive conditions in our forests and national parks? For that matter, why does anyone go for a walk on a woodland trail when one could be speeding along a superhighway in a high-powered automobile?

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 that we have paid a high spiritual price for our plenty. Each person would like to feel that he is an entity, a separate individual capable of independent existence, and this is hard to believe when everything that we eat, wear, live in, drive, use, or handle has required the cooperative effort of literally millions of people to produce, process, transport, and, eventually, distribute to our hands. 

h1. About the book and author

First published in 1962, Stalking the Wild Asparagus quickly became the forager's bible, its simple descriptions and instructions teaching readers how to find, harvest, and cook wild foodstuffs from cattails to greens to nuts and berries. 

Euell Gibbons (1911-1975) learned how to forage growing up in New Mexico; his harvesting skills proved essential for feeing his impoverished family. 

He was a jack-of-all-trades who only realized his lifelong ambition — to become a writer — when his books on wild foods became bestsellers. Stalking the Wild Asparagus, along with many of Gibbons' foraging books, is still in print today.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc (1962).

Man simply must feel that he is more than a mere mechanical part in this intricately interdependent industrial system. We enjoy the comfort and plenty which this highly organized production and distribution has brought us, but don’t we sometimes feel that we are living a secondhand sort of existence, and that we are in danger of losing all contact with the origins of life and the nature which nourishes it?

Probably very few of us will ever be faced with the necessity of living off the country for any extended period of time. The outdoor skills, necessary to the survival of our ancestors, are now utilized in the service of recreation. Those who remember when they packed a picnic lunch and went out for a day’s berrying or nutting will never deny the possibilities of wild-food gathering as a family recreation. Children, especially, are intrigued with the idea of garnering their food from the fields and byways. Food takes on a new meaning to the child who has participated in this fundamental method of acquiring it.

One doesn’t need to go to the mountains or virgin forests to find wild food plants. In fact, mountains and dense forests are among the poorer places to look. Abandoned farmsteads, old fields, fence rows, burned-off areas, roadsides, along streams, woodlots, around farm ponds, swampy areas, and even vacant lots are the finest foraging sites.

I have collected 15 species that could be used for food on a vacant lot right in Chicago. Eighteen different kinds were pointed out in the circuit of a two-acre pond near Philadelphia. The hunter or fisherman may often come home empty-handed, but the forager, although he may fail to find the particular plant he is seeking, can always load his knapsack with wholesome and palatable food. The species of plants which the forager finds will change as the seasons advance, but the fields and forests can always furnish something good to eat.

But doesn’t it take a great deal of specialized knowledge in order to recognize the wild plants that are good for food? Did you ever stop to think how much specialized knowledge and fine discrimination are required in order to tell a head of cabbage from a head of lettuce on a grocer’s shelf? How would you describe the difference, so someone who had never seen either could be certain what he is getting? Yet most of us are not aware of ever having made an effort to learn to discriminate between the common vegetables. We recognize them intuitively, just as we do other familiar things. The same thing becomes true of wild food plants after a short acquaintance.

[%image morel float=right width=400 caption="A delicious food that must be harvested in the wild, the morel mushroom comes into season in the spring and summer." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/EEI_Tony"]

Learn to appreciate new flavors. All tastes are acquired tastes, as is easily seen when one examines the bills of fare of populations in different parts of the world. We are not born with a preference for any food except human milk, and, since this product hardly figures in the diet of adults, we have had to learn to like all that we eat. 

Many of the staple foods we eat today, and even some that we consider luxurious dainties, were once refused on the grounds of prejudice. One of the earliest reports on maple sugar as made by the Indians, written about 1700, says that the sugar “lacks the pleasing, delicate taste of cane sugar.” Now we meekly pay many times the price of cane sugar for this finest of sweets.

Some readers will claim that they prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables from a supermarket for reasons of sanitation and cleanliness. This is the most illogical prejudice of all. The devitalized and days-old produce usually found on your grocer’s shelves has been raised in ordinary dirt, manured with God-knows-what, and sprayed with poisons a list of which would read like a textbook on toxicology. They were harvested by workers, handled by processors and salespeople, and picked over by hordes of customers before you bought them.

By contrast, wild food grows in the clean, uncultivated fields and woods, and has never been touched by human hands until you come along to claim it. No artificial manures, with their possible sources of pollution, have ever been placed around it. Nature’s own methods have maintained the fertility that produced it and no poisonous sprays have ever come near it. Wild food is clean because it has never been dirty.

reference-image, l

morel, l