CAIRO – Though Euell Gibbons is no longer a household name, a West Virginia gathering inspired by the folksy nature writer’s passion for foraged delicacies is still going strong.
Put on by the National Wild Food Association and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, the festival and conference is the longest-running such food event in the United States, according to organizers.
Participants must register in advance, but the three-day festival is open to anyone and typically attracts lifelong foragers as well as those just getting started. The cost to attend starts at around $250, but the exact price depends on the lodging participants choose.
Options range from camping out in the woods on site to the more hotel-like setting of the state park’s lodge.
North Bend has hosted the event since the fall of 1968 when Gibbons himself served as keynote speaker. At the time, he was the well-known author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus’’ and followup books focused on seafood and herbs.
He came to the event – and every subsequent festival until just before his death in 1975 – at the request of Edelene Wood, a teacher and natural food pioneer from Parkersburg who’d struck up a correspondence and then a friendship with the likeminded Texas native.
The event remains much as it was in its earliest days, with an itinerary of expert-led nature hikes, contests for top recipes featuring wild ingredients, and a social hour that includes the chance to try dishes made with well-known West Virginia-grown delights such as ramps, paw paws and black walnuts but also obscure roots, herbs, greens and berries and all manner of meat, from venison to rattlesnake.
It is the practice of Wood, the longtime president of the West Virginia Wild Food Association, and other organizers to gather the wild items when they’re at their peak, then keep them tucked away in the freezer to be transformed into desserts, soups, appetizers and other dishes on site at the festival.
Over the years, Wood has shared hundreds of dishes including ramp cornbread, hickory nut syrup, pecans spiced with sassafras and pawpaw ice cream.
“You can come to the weekend and have a great time without knowing anything at all about wild foods,’’ said Wood, who says the festival draws many of its participants from all over West Virginia as well as from outside the state.
“This is a perfect event for those who have a curiosity. You can go out in the woods and learn about foods and medicine that come from the wild and then go to the social hour and see for yourselves how amazing wild foods can taste. The weekend is a terrific introduction into the whole notion of wild foods.’’
The original organic
The number of wild-food events being held across the nation is a growing trend. Many have grown weary and wary over the years about filling their dinner plates with mass-produced foods.
Thanks to salmonella outbreaks and other packaged food scares involving everything from peanut butter to fresh spinach, the lure of eating organically grown food – or even eating foods straight from Mother Nature – has more appeal than ever.
Northbend is an ideal setting for the gathering, organizers say. Woodland forests surround the park, which boasts miles of hiking trails and a fishing-friendly 305-acre lake. The park is situated in Ritchie County, about 25 miles east of Parkersburg in Cairo (pronounced “Care-O”), a town founded in 1895 and named after the Egyptian city because of its abundant water and fertile land.
Though the festival celebrating foraged foods is now a West Virginia tradition, the event had had critics early on.
When it began, Wood said, many older folks, including Wood’s own mother, initially rejected coming to the festival because it conjured up memories of the Great Depression. In that period, countless struggling families, particularly in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia, depended on wild plants and game for their daily bread.
“Doing wild food classes, I realized that in West Virginia, a lot of people from my mother’s generation didn’t want to talk about what they’d done to get through the Depression,’’ said Wood, who was a toddler when the stock market crash forced her white-collar family to move from Parkersburg to a farm in rural Wood County where they would spend the next seven years.
“When I’ve given wild food talks in other states, you don’t see that kind of shame,” Wood said. “In Minnesota, they’ll tell you all about eating gophers and prairie dogs. In the Piedmont section of North Carolina, we were talking about eating frog legs and people told me, ‘We would eat the whole frog.’ ”
In the festival’s early years, Wood also often heard from people who assumed the festival was connected to a counter-culture lifestyle, Wood said.
Times have changed.
“People don’t have those kinds of associations now, certainly not about hippies,” Wood said, “and these days very few connect foraging with the survival foods they ate during the Depression. Now it’s something a lot of people just feel a curiosity about.
“They see wild foods not as survival foods but as gourmet.’’