Next up on the essays shelf:
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick
Secret Ingredients is a collection of food writing from The New Yorker. I love these collections. So far, we have excerpted from the following collections: Life Stories, The Fun of It, and The New Gilded Age. There are a couple more collections out there that I do not own, sports writing, humor writing, fiction.
I’m not a foodie, but I love this collection because 1. it gives snapshots of different eras, 2. the writing is great.
Another lengthy piece by John McPhee. One of his longer pieces called “Travels in Georgia” was excerpted in another New Yorker collection. In the comments section to that post, Fiddlin’ Bill and I had a good talk about John McPhee, a writer I honestly knew little about. Fiddlin’ Bill knows everything ! But what a voice McPhee has, what an interesting perspective. Curious about the land, about nature, about the wilds that are out there in America, left to be explored. The “Travels in Georgia” piece, from 1973, was a profile of a couple of folks who traveled around Georgia scooping up road kill to hand off to universities, investigate stream patterns, and, in general, live off the land. In this piece, called “A Forager”, John McPhee contacts Euell Gibbons, famous mainly in the 60s (this piece appeared in 1968) for his advocacy for cooking wild food, and foraging for wild food. He was famous enough (he wrote books about how to gather and cook food found in the wild) to show up in a Grape Nuts commercial.
His most famous book, the one that put him on the map, was Stalking the Wild Asparagus. But McPhee goes into Gibbons’ whole life story in the profile, which is lengthy and comprehensive. Gibbons was born in Texas, but the family moved to New Mexico when he was a kid. The father sounds like he was a bit of a good-for-nothing, always rooting the family up for some grand scheme out in the middle of nowhere that would then fall through. The family wasn’t just poor, they were hard UP, and Gibbons’ mother taught her young son all about the wild things you could pick and eat. He learned early that nature was filled with stuff that you could make into a damn fine meal. He also learned early about all the shit out there that could kill you if you weren’t careful. Gibbons’ journey is a meandering one. He moved around, he worked in different jobs, he had a dream of becoming a writer. He sounds like a pretty intense guy. He often was so hard up in between jobs that he just lived off the land. Literally. He’d walk along country roads, picking weeds and nettles and flowers that he knew he could turn into soup, or fry them up on his camp stove. Eventually, he did write a novel, and he had a connection in New York and sent it in. It was rejected. But there was all this stuff about gathering wild food in the novel, so he took out all the fiction bits, and basically ended up with a book about the glorious world of foraging for food, called Stalking the Wild Asparagus.
Side note: I saw a film a couple years ago called Now, Forager (dumb title, just stop) – but it was quite interesting, about a couple who spent their weekends foraging in the wild woods of New Jersey and Westchester for wild mushrooms, etc., which they would then drive in to Manhattan and sell at restaurants. It was not entirely successful as a film, but it was a fascinating look at a pretty serious sub-culture. Here’s my review.
Gibbons took foraging to a whole new level. He was basically a gourmet. He was hired by schools, military outfits, the government, to teach people about natural foods, how to fend for yourself. He was NOT, however, a survivalist. You know, stockpiling canned goods and ammunition for when the black helicopters came to get him. He was an oddball, really. He didn’t quite fit in in the world. He found a good niche. He married. He became a Quaker. It was the only religion he tried (and he tried many) where he felt he didn’t have to lie about anything.
John McPhee reached out to Gibbons and proposed to him an experiment: How about you and me set out in a canoe on the Susquehanna River, with nothing packed but a tent and some utensils. And how about we forage for food for five days, and you show me how it’s done? Gibbons seemed hesitant at first. It was November, getting late in the season for that, a bit too cold. But McPhee insisted, and so the two men set off.
The profile is an in-depth look at Gibbons’ life and history, but it is also the story of these two men foraging for food along the river, Gibbons teaching McPhee about what to look for, what to avoid. In an interesting moment, as Gibbons tells McPhee about his childhood, McPhee realizes the insensitivity, basically, of his request of Gibbons. Gibbons had known real hunger, real poverty – and so to “play” at it for five days … of course Gibbons had balked. But Gibbons gets into the spirit of it. I keep picturing McPhee huddled over his notebook scribbling like a maniac after Gibbons goes to sleep. There is so much information here. And, Gibbons plans the menu ahead of time, even though he can’t be sure of what they will find. But he knows they need to get enough protein to keep the hunger pangs away, to have enough energy, they need to have a certain amount of sugar, etc. This guy is resourceful.
IT IS FASCINATING.
This is just a tiny excerpt of what is a gigantic piece.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick; ‘A Forager’, by John McPhee
When we got up, at 6 a.m., the temperature was twenty-five degrees and there were panes of ice around pools at the edge of the river. The river surface was absolutely smooth, and twists of vapor were rising from it. Families of coot swam in zigzags in the mist. We had a collapsible bucksaw with us. I set that up, cut logs from a fallen birch, and made a good-sized fire while Gibbons got together the materials for breakfast. The first thing he made was water-mint tea. I had three cups in quick succession. The cups we had were made of aluminum, and the heat coming through the handle of mine burned my fingers, while the rest of my hand was red with cold. Gibbons said, “In Troxelville, mint is called tea, so you know what they do with it.” The night before, I had been full of compliments for the dinner he had cooked, and now he seemed a little sensitive about the breakfast he was about to serve. He warned me that breakfast is the roughest meal to get through on any survival trip, because that is usually the time when the wild foods are most dissimilar from the foods one is used to at home. He then filled two plates with a medley of steaming watercress, chicory greens, cattail sprouts, and burdock roots. It was, frankly, a pretty unusual breakfast. The boiled watercress was delicious, and the cattail sprouts were sweet and tender. The chicory greens, being even bitterer than the dandelion greens of the night before, were a little strong for that hour in the day. The burdock roots, which he had slicked into discs, were undistinguished in flavor, and tough. “One thing we won’t need on this trip is vitamin pills,” Gibbons said. “This watercress, for example, has more vitamin C in it – weight for weight – than there is in orange juice. Spinach is the only garden vegetable I know of that has more vitamin A than these chicory greens. On the whole, people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spent so much time exterminating. The stinging nettle has more protein than any other leafy material ever tested. Cooked nettles don’t sting. Nettle beer is very good.” Neither of us finished the chicory greens, and we flipped the leftovers off our plates onto the ground. Gibbons said, “When we throw away garbage, it goes right back into the earth.” We ended the breakfast with several handfuls of persimmons, which tasted as sweet and as bland as dates following the bitter greens.
After breakfast, we heard shotgun blasts up and down the river, some quite close, and I said, “What are they shooting at?”
Gibbons said, “Duck, I think.”
I began to think of roast duck stuffed with oranges. Gibbons must have started to think about roast duck at that moment, too. “There’s a difference between being hungry for foods that you’re used to eating and being just plain hungry,” he said, and he added, “I’ve been both.” Then he went foraging while I cleaned up and packed the gear. When he came back, he was carrying a bag full of winter cress and three bags full of oyster mushrooms. The winter cress looked like magnified watercress, but its taste, Gibbons said, would be altogether different. The oyster mushrooms were gray and floppy and made me think of the gills of sharks. Gibbons told me that he had found them growing on a dead birch and a dead willow, and he said, “When they steam, they smell like oysters.”
“How do you tell the difference between an edible mushroom and a poisonous mushroom?” I asked him.
“You can’t,” he said. “A family in New Jersey died two weeks ago from eating Amanita verna – you know, the death angel. A reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer called me up and said, ‘How do you tell the difference between mushrooms and toadstools?’ You don’t. There are too many of them. Some are neither edible nor poisonous. You learn to recognize the edible species. It is exactly like recognizing someone’s face; once you know a person, you know that person from all other people. If you came home at night and a woman you had never seen was standing there in your house, you wouldn’t think it was your wife. God help you, anyway, if you would. Oyster mushrooms, meadow mushrooms, chanterelles, shaggymanes, puffballs – you get to know each one, and you never forget them. I don’t just go out, find a mushroom, eat it, and see if it’s going to kill me. I know what I’m looking for.”
A boy hunter walked into the campsite. He was about twelve years old, and he was wearing a red cotton parka. A shotgun slanted down from the bend in his right arm. He had short-cropped blond hair. His left hand was bright with blood.
“Hello. What did you kill?” I asked him.
“Rabbit. You get anything?”
“Yes,” Gibbon said.
“What did you get?”
“Don’t you hunt?” the boy said.
“Sometimes,” Gibbons told him. “Have you seen any ducks this morning?”
“No, but I shot five coot down there, on the water.”
“What did you do with them?”
“What did I do with them? I’m not going to wade out after coot. I’m not going to get wet for coot – not when it’s this cold.”
The boy moved on up the riverbank. Gibbons and I looked at each other for a moment, and each saw all reserves about hunted game crumbling away. We threw all our stuff into the canoe and shoved off. A coot is a ducklike bird – not a delicacy, but edible.
We searched the river for the five dead birds. Perhaps to give his appetite every possible consideration, Gibbons began to refer to the coots as ducks, and he began to shape a menu in his mind that included not only ducks but freshwater clams. “Watch the bottom,” he said. “I want ducks and clams. If we had ducks and clams, we could have clam-and-mushroom stuffing for the duck.” So we began to scan the bed of the river as well as the surface. The water was clear and it flowed along over ribs of stratified rock that were partly covered with leaves and algae but not with clams. On the surface all around us were gliding coots but no dead ones. We slanted back and forth in angled patterns down the western side of the river. It seemed impossible, on such a still morning, that we could not see the birds.
“That little kid was lying,” I said. “He didn’t shoot any coots.”
“There’s a clam!” Gibbons shouted.
“Right there, Goddamn it. Stop the canoe!”
We backwatered hard, and then I pried the canoe broadside to the current and jammed my paddle against the river bottom on the downstream side. While I hung on, Gibbons plunged his arm into the water, soaking part of the sleeve of his jacket. When he drew out his arm, he had a muddy half shell in his hand.