When I was a kid at the ashram in Ahmednagar, India, I used to read National Geographics from a dusty stack piled outside on a forever-stalled wooden cart. I can still picture the photograph of multi-colored Peruvian potatoes tumbled together like uncut gems, and an advertisement for canned ham that showed a forty-ingredient sandwich with each layer meticulously labeled, all the way down to “toothpick” and “olive” (on toothpick.)

An article I re-read multiple times was about a wild food expert taking the author to a beach and fixing a gourmet meal solely from sea urchins, mussels, seaweed, beach-adjacent plants, and other things he gathered. I finally figured out this year that the expert was Euell Gibbons, and that he was apparently somewhat famous in the sixties.

This book, a series of brief essays on identifying and cooking various American wild plants and the occasional animal, was more entertaining and interesting than inspirational. I would not want to attempt to identify and then eat any plant based on his partial black and white drawings and less than comprehensive descriptions. For instance, he draws several types of acorns, noting that some oaks produce acorns which are sweet and some which are extremely bitter, but does not say which produce which. This was disappointing, because I am sure I know what an acorn is and that is one of the very few types of wild food I would consider trying without in-person advice.

I’d recommend this as a period piece, as a writing reference if you have characters who dine off the woods, as a source of recipes if you can already identify all the plants, and as a good read if you like food and nature writing. It doesn’t work, as Gibbons seems to intend it to, as a useful field guide… unless, perhaps, you are much braver than I.

Has anyone ever dined off the land? (Other than fishing and berry-picking, which even I have done.)

Stalking The Wild Asparagus
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