Though sometimes criticized for his low-key Southern style, and the “soft” subject matter of his shows, Huell Howser created very popular programs for local public television station KCET because he showcased the people of California in what, to them, was their natural environment.
With Huell, we were able to go to all the sites that we never had the chance to visit; places where you could see freshwater shrimp, or turtles, or Indian grinding stones. He also took us into unusual businesses, where we got to see how guitars are made, how tofu is packaged, and how much ordinary people enjoy things as simple as a morning donut. He introduced us to all the colorful characters that make California what it is. And I was one of those people.
About 10 years ago, the producer of Huell’s show and I decided to place Huell in an urban setting and show him that food is everywhere. We went into an empty lot one spring day, with the bustling early-morning traffic of the freeway just behind us. While my wife Dolores beat her Taos drum and told Huell about the traditional way to pick plants, I showed him and cameraman Luis Fuerte some of the common edibles in the area.
We looked at mallow and lambs quarter and willow and nasturtium. Even though we were in downtown Los Angeles, we were just a stone’s throw from where a village existed centuries ago, not far from the Los Angeles River — now a cement ditch. This is where the original Tongva inhabitants fished, hunted, washed and collected the same wild foods that we presented to Huell that morning.
When we met before the shooting, Huell wouldn’t let me explain any of what I had planned for the day.
“No, don’t tell me any of that. I want it all to be fresh for the first time,” he said with great sincerity. “My only rule is that, when I begin to walk, I want you to move with me.”
So as Huell, Dolores and I moved from plant to plant, picking leaves for what would be a wild Los Angeles salad, Huell would respond with amazement that he was actually eating wild plants from a vacant lot simply because I said they were edible. Fuerte moved around us rapidly and gracefully, as if dancing.
“You know, that’s really good,” Huell said with his trademark Southern charm as he chewed on a leaf.
That show — part of his “Visiting” series, which he called “Survival Foods” — aired at least 20 times. We had a great day with Huell, and we very much enjoyed our wild-salad “toast,” which was made at the end of the show in a tasty salute to “The Old Ways.”
Though he had called me to do another segment in the mountain wilderness, with his death this week at age 67 we won’t be able to do that.
I am sure many, many people have similar stories about this brilliant man with simple formulas for bringing out the best in people. He knew that everyone had a story, and he took the time to bring those stories to each of us. I will miss him. A legend before his death, Huell Howser is now part of the California Gold of which he so often spoke.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of books on the outdoors, including “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Guide to Wild Foods.” He does a weekly podcast for Preparedness Radio Network, and he blogs at ChristopherNyerges.com. A schedule of his classes at the School of Self-Reliance is available by writing to PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041. Nyerges appeared on Howser’s show in 2000 in an episode called “Survival Foods,” available on DVD from “California Gold” or the store at christophernyerges.com.