Wild foods guru's nature weekend
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the Nature Wonder Weekend opens Sept. 20 at North Bend State Park, nobody will be more filled with wonder than the busy 91-year-old woman who introduced the wild foods program more than four decades ago.
Every year, Parkersburg's Edelene Wood marvels at the growing popularity of her pet event.
The well-known wild food forager started learning about nature's edibles during woodsy walks with her grandmother on their farm during the Depression.
Teaching an adult education class on wild plants led her to noted naturalist Euell Gibbons. He accepted her invitation to speak at the first Nature Wonder Weekend in 1968.
She credits Gibbons, her mentor, for making survival food respectable and acceptable to the masses.
His wild foods disciple made a national name for herself as a lecturer, writer, creator of wild food dishes and longtime president of the National Wild Foods Association.
Earthworm cake, anyone?
"I'm ancient, really. A long time ago, when I was about 50 in North Carolina and doing my first wild foods down there, I was being interviewed. I was about to say I was 51. My hostess told the reporter not to ask me that. She said, 'When your story comes out, she may be too young for the old people to believe and, for the flower children, she may be too old for them to believe.' Anyway, I am 91.
"My great-grandfather was an herbalist. They were country people and believed in all kinds of medicinal herbs and edible things. We lived along the Ohio River around Ravenswood. My mother and father were displaced during the Depression and they took the two of us to a remote area of Jackson County.
"We just happened to eat whatever was available, what most people were doing at that time.
"My father had no money for ammunition for a gun so he devised ways to catch animals. They made many trips to gather blackberries. Our favorite food was hot blackberry jam, which was all they had at times.
"We lived in an area where there had been French settlers. Many of the things I learned were handed down by ethnic groups. It's exciting to find out what the ethnic people used when they came to the U.S. The Italians made cacciatore out of little animals, all sorts of weird things.
"My grandmother had grown up in that part of the country. When we would go for a walk, I listened to what she was saying and was interested and developed this desire to know more about it.
"I attended Parkersburg High School and a college in Parkersburg. I wanted to be a lawyer, but secretary was where fate placed me. Fate places you in strange positions.
"I was a secretary at the power company. They were interested in improving the economy and social life. It was my good fortune to be put in a place where I could help promote all kinds of things.
"The Little Kanawha Regional Council was formed to promote regional improvement, and I was chosen to work with them. Out of that came this desire to help with North Bend State Park.
"Foremost was a program where we tried to interest the state in buying black walnuts from the farmers. They weren't promoting black walnuts. I talked a chef at a major hotel in Parkersburg into making the first black walnut pie I ever ate.
"I could see there were many things they had that would interest people in nature. Birds, wildflowers, everything. I had been teaching wild plant identification at Wood County Adult Education. I had met the writer Euell Gibbons, a wild foods enthusiast and a best-selling author of nature.
"I asked him to come speak. He came and charmed everybody into the idea of mountaineer food or 'make do' food. His audience realized that here was someone who had a unique idea. This was 1968.
"I had people contact me saying not to promote that because it reflects that we are poor. Euell Gibbons called it gourmet wild food, so he made it OK. He's the one who glorified it. He also made it OK for me to be doing more and more. This was in 1968.
"He inspired the idea for the name, Nature Wonder Weekend. He had written to me and the letterhead read 'It Wonders Me,' the name of his place. So we decided to put wonder in there, Nature Wonder Weekend.
"From then on, it got bigger and bigger. North Bend is considered the center of wild food appreciation in the U.S.
"Gibbons had always wanted a national organization of people who would be interested in the same thing in other states. After he died, I contacted people in all 50 states and now we have a great many groups. I went to North Carolina, Alaska, Minnesota, California.
"It was interesting to see that here was this little idea that nobody would have thought had any glamour to it, and 40 years later, everybody tunes in to see who's eating bugs and all kinds of things. On TV you see all these things touting wild foods, and it all began back in 1968 at North Bend State Park.
"I came here in the summer of 1968 on a wildflower trip. Delmer Robinson, a columnist for the Gazette, arranged for me to come because he had been my guest in Parkersburg at some of my dinners. He arranged for me to do a field trip. Osbra Eye, the superintendent here at Kanawha State Forest, was also interested.
"I thought we would only have about 12 people, but there were about 48. When we got back, there was this spread of wild foods plus six frog legs, not enough frog legs for all those people. Osbra said a frog has two-part legs and three-part legs. We cut each leg into three pieces to have enough.
"At North Bend, we'd had dandelion coffee, nothing more. When we were planning our next event, Cordie Hudkins, our park superintendent, was angry that it might be identified with Kanawha State Forest. He wanted North Bend identified with wild food. From then on, North Bend had a wild foods spread at each event. So Osbra Eye was the person who caused it.
"When we first had Euell Gibbons, we didn't have much operating money. I asked what his charge would be. He said $100 would be adequate. He was with us eight years and became a fantastic personality on TV. Everybody thought he was so fascinating. In those years, even though he was making $5,000 for a personal appearance, he never raised the price on us.
"A soil conservationist was in one of my classes and gave me an article and said he bet I couldn't figure out how to eat earthworms. The article was offering $400 for ways to use earthworms for food.
"I entered the contest. I didn't win, but I got the winning recipe as a consolation prize and took it to North Carolina. I made this prizewinning earthworm cake for them. You clean the earthworms out with sand and water, and then you grind them or chop them and incorporate them into the cake mix.
"This person who owned a restaurant, his wife came up and said her husband was a Boy Scout leader and would want the recipe. He turned it into a glorious cake with caramel icing.
"I was asked to come on a TV program in California, 'To Tell the Truth.' They said to bring the farthest out thing you do, so I took the cake to the studio in Burbank.
"The most enjoyable thing was to see the growth of an idea, something that some people were ashamed of. Stonewall Jackson said people west of the Alleghenies knew how to survive. He knew something other people did not know until there was this change of attitude. In my mind, Euell Gibbons was the one who turned the tide. He is imbedded in the hearts of the people around North Bend.
"Bill Gillespie, commissioner of agriculture at one time, was a specialist in survival food, too. He said the reason Nature Wonder Weekend has flourished is that Gibbons and Edelene Wood called it gourmet wild food whereas when he was teaching survival foods, he would show how to make mouse burgers.
"My brother, an electrician, was standing on a massive antique table trying to fix a chandelier, and he tipped it over, and it fell right on my knee and broke my knee.
"At that time, the elderberries were in bloom and it was West Virginia Day, and it grieved me that if I just had some elderberries, I would make West Virginia a birthday cake. So every day after that, I have made West Virginia an elderberry cake for its birthday.
"The Gazette's Delmer Robinson came up with this idea to give out wild friendship cups. He told me the concoction to use. So he is responsible for the Cup of Wild Friendship that we give to participants every year.
"This is my first trip back to the forest since 1968. I want to pay tribute to Osbra and also to Cordie who wanted wild foods for North Bend. Our next event is Sept. 21-22. I have helped organize and manage all of them.
"You don't know what fate has in store for you. Wild food turned into my life's work."
"The good thing about having something you are so interested in is that, no matter what else is happening in your life, that outside interest can carry you through."
For information about Nature Wonder Weekend, contact Wendy Greene at 304-558-2754 or Wendy.L.Greene@wv.gov.
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.