Thirty-five years later, the message of Euell ‘Grape-Nuts’ Gibbons, king of the natural foods craze, still rings true
By Christopher Nyerges 11/24/2010
In 1974, a strange man entered America’s consciousness via television. Acting out what seemed to be primitive rites, he would brandish cattails, goldenrod, hickory nuts and pine branches, instructing the viewers that “many parts are edible, you know.”
Euell Gibbons rapidly became fodder for comedians who turned his “Stalking the Wild ...” book titles into the comedy cliché of the year. But, in the summer of 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Gibbons’ commercials for Post Grape-Nuts cereal off the air, and, by the time he died on Dec. 29, 1975, Gibbons’ celebrity had diminished considerably.
That was a shame, for Gibbons did have a valuable message for America: There are tons of wild, nutritious foods growing everywhere in this country, which we could — but don’t — eat. Gibbons believed that the main reason why 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: 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 as 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, despite the fact that 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, the media latched onto two incidents in which teenagers who had been captivated by Gibbons’ living-off-the-land philosophy became ill when they mistakenly ate toxic plants while foraging near the Angeles National Forest.
Gibbons’ death of unspecified “natural causes” at the age of 64 seemed to seal his reputation as a “kook.” At worst, people suspected that he had accidentally poisoned himself (he hadn’t); 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 that he left us with a precious legacy.
I first encountered Gibbons in 1972, through his writings. 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. In 1974, I began to share what I had learned by conducting Wild Food Outings in the Los Angeles area.
I finally met Gibbons after he gave a lecture at Pasadena City College. 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 is the persistence — not to mention the expenditure of 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, lamb’s quarter, pigweed, mallow, mustard, and sow thistle. Among the most enduring of 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, French sorrel, sour grass and ground ivy.
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 — foods that grow in relative abundance and that are much better for you than a lot of the processed junk sold in supermarkets.
After all these years, Euell Gibbons and his many adherents warrant our admiration, not our mockery.