Simple is as simple does
Touring Amish country with wild-food man Peter Gail
By Christopher Nyerges 12/04/2008
It was a gray winter’s day when Peter Gail and I drove eastbound on US 422 in northeastern Ohio. The clouds made it difficult to see very far into the countryside. The sound of the windshield wipers provided a steady background tempo for our conversation.
The temperature was in the high 30s — about the same temperature inside Peter’s van, too. I’m from California and was tense from the cold, hunched a bit, trying to stay warm. Peter was relaxed, smiling, pointing out each feature as we drove along. He’s a Cleveland resident and used to the cold. Today he was my tour guide to the Amish countryside of Ohio.
Peter Gail’s most famous business associate was Euell Gibbons, who authored “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” starred in Grape Nuts cereal commercials in the 1970s and was the butt of Johnnie Carson’s jokes about eating everything from old tires to freeway overpasses.
That was a long time ago. During those years, Gail edited Gibbons’ articles for Boys Life magazine, and worked with him and others to develop the National Wilderness Survival Training Camp for the Boy Scouts. When Gibbons had become nationally famous from the commercials and Johnny Carson’s jokes, and was overbooked, Gail occasionally substituted for him on the lecture circuit.
Gibbons died way back in 1975 and Gail has tirelessly carried the torch for wild-food enthusiasts, penning numerous books on the subject and continuing to lecture about the virtues of the ubiquitous wild plants and those people who still use them as a part of daily life.
While Gail is best known on the national circuit for his “Dinner Underfoot and Healing with Weeds” lectures and workshops, he is equally well known for his work among the Northeastern Ohio Amish community, the fourth largest in the world. As a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and anthropologist, he has studied the Amish for nearly 40 years to discover the lessons their simple lifestyle can teach us. He expounds on that in books, articles and his tours for those interested in learning more about these people who seem firmly rooted in the technology of the 19th century.
If you are unfamiliar with the Amish, they use no electricity and shun most modern so-called conveniences. This means no electric lights, no electric refrigerators, no television, very few of the modern devices that most folks take for granted. They have managed to produce most of their needed items by simple old-fashioned ingenuity. They use wood stoves, hand tools, oil lamps, diesel and small gasoline engines to generate power, and use horse-drawn tractors. They build houses in such a way to take advantage of the heat of summer, and be protected from the cold of winter.
Perhaps Gail’s most popular book is his “Dandelion Celebration,” which tells you everything you’d ever want to know about dandelions. He’s also authored the “Delightful Delicious Daylily,” “Violets in Your Kitchen,” “The Messy Mulberry and What to Do With It,” and the “Volunteer Vegetable Sampler,” which profiles the culinary and medicinal values of 41 of the most common backyard weeds.
Gail got interested in wild foods at an early age in nearby San Gabriel. After his father died, he collected “goosefoot” to help feed the family. Goosefoot is another name for the common lamb’s-quarter plant, a type of wild spinach and arguably one of the most nutritious greens in the world. This early experience affected him to such a degree that he called his educational company Goosefoot Acres.
Gail can be reached via Goosefoot Acres, P.O. Box 18016, Cleveland, Ohio, 44118, or by calling (800) 697-4858. Visit goosefootacres.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and a wilderness instructor. Contact him through his Web site, ChristopherNyerges.com.