Hats off to Euell “Try Anything” Gibbons

What exactly is an edible plant? Depends who you ask. If you ask Euell Gibbons (or asked him – he died in 1975), it’s anything that doesn’t kill you. I set the bar a little higher. It has to taste good and not kill you.

When plants are only an inch or two high, they all look pretty much the same, and the only way for anyone without world-class botanical skills to find out if something’s edible is to taste it. The problem with this method is that tasting will only tell you how it tastes, and not necessarily if it will kill you. I’m betting my survival on the two-fold assumption that (1) a very small taste of even a poisonous plant won’t kill me and (2) anything poisonous will taste too bad for me to want to eat more. If hemlock tastes like sweet corn, will someone please let me know?

I’ve been out several times, tasting anything that looks promising, and I can report that most of the early spring plants – and I’m closing in on a statistically significant sample – taste icky. They’re all some combination of grassy, tough, bitter, stringy, fuzzy, and woody. So it was with no great optimism that I ventured out in a field in Woods Hole yesterday.

After tasting – and spitting out – eight or ten unidentifiable plants, I was reaching my limit of the nascent little nasties. I was about to throw in the towel when I spotted a patch of something that looked a lot like the garlic that’s coming up in our garden. I pulled one out, brushed off the dirt, and took a bite.

No nastiness! No acrid bitterness, no fibrous chewiness, no nauseous grassiness. It was pleasantly crisp and mildly nutty. I’d go so far as to say it was good. I didn’t have the first clue what it was (it certainly wasn’t garlic), but it seemed eminently edible, so I harvested a bagful and went to find Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen is my go-to gardener. I met her at a Cape Cod Organic Gardeners’ meeting, and she won me over by effortlessly identifying the ground cover we were standing on as ajuga (which I tasted, and which is edible, but only just). I showed her my haul, and she immediately said, “They’re lilies.” Could they be daylilies? Mary Ellen thought they were. I’d heard those were not just edible, but borderline delicious. (Keep in mind that a “delicious” that modifies an edible plant is not the same as a “delicious” that modifies, say, my pecan pie.)

I confirmed Mary Ellen’s identification using the ultimate authority – the Internet – and steamed my daylilies just until they wilted. Served with a little butter and salt, they were delicious. In an edible plant kind of way.

Gibbons undoubtedly ate, and probably relished, foods I don’t plan to incorporate into my diet. You won’t catch me making acorn flour or goldenrod tea any time soon. But there’s something about a guy who’ll try absolutely anything – any plant, any time, anywhere. And, if it’s no good, he’ll boil it for a while and try it again. And, if that doesn’t work, he’ll make an infusion out of it. Euell Gibbons seems to have spent his entire adult life cooking every plant every which way in his quest for edibility.

It may be that I admire single-mindedness because I’m an incurable dilettante. I can get interested in anything, and then, just as easily, be distracted by something new. I know a little bit – a very little bit – about a lot of things, and I’m the world’s leading expert on nothing at all. I would very much like to be the world’s leading expert on something, but I recognized long ago that I am temperamentally ill-suited to specialization.

Luckily, there are the Gibbons of this world to take up the slack. It’s people like him who enable people like me to learn that little bit about a lot of things, and to find daylilies for dinner.

9 people are having a conversation about “Hats off to Euell “Try Anything” Gibbons

  1. Just don’t run into the flora specialist or she might give you a hard time about eating wild flowers before the rest of us had a chance to see them in bloom.

  2. beachnitpicker says:

    I love the definition of a generalist as someone who learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. A specialist, on the other hand, learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.

  3. Woodsman — I did give some thought to the tradeoff of my dinner for other people’s flowers. This time, I get a pass because I didn’t know they were flowers when I picked them. Even so, I was careful not to take all, or even most of the patch. I probably took 10% because I didn’t want to materially change the landscape. (It was was a boggy area bordering a soccer field, where the flowers had clearly grown wild, and not someone’s front lawn.)

    Had I known they were flowers, I think I would have done the same. It seems to me that the 10% rule is reasonable in most circumstances. Of course, if everyone reads Euell Gibbons and goes out foraging with the same rule, we could be in trouble.

  4. We’ve been waiting for you to get a taste of what we call Marstons Millies.
    And don’t worry about taking too much. If you don’t cut down too far, more leaves will come up.
    Enjoy them this week because with a few really warm days they will grow up quick. They are the tastiest when they are young and not much taller than 6 inches, after that they get stringy and it’s more like eating grass.

  5. Wow, I never knew you could eat day lilies. We have tons growing wild around our house. Come help yourself if you wish.
    When Don and I first moved here permanently in 1976, we were gung-ho to grow things and try new stuff. I do believe we read Mr. Gibbons and gave a try to Jerusaleum artichokes. They look like small sunflowers in the fall but the tubers are what you eat. Perhaps you will get to try some this fall.

  6. Jane — That’s awfully neighborly of you. I may just take you up that offer. And, come fall, I’m definitely in for Jerusalem artichokes.

  7. Hey Tamar,
    Glad you enjoyed the Day Lillies.. I always watch for them to come up on the warm and sunny side of my kitchen and cut the new young shoots to toss in my “spring” salads along with some wild onions which
    manage to spring up all over the place. Have fun exploring.

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