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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Perils of Fame: How Grape Nuts Turned Euell Gibbons into a Joke


Euell Gibbons and Grape Nuts
Sadly, the only thing most people know about Euell Gibbons was that he starred in Grape Nuts commercials

Do a Google search for Euell Gibbons today, and you’re not likely to turn up much about his environmental activism or connection to organic farming. What you’ll find is that he’s mostly remembered for starring in a series of Grape Nuts commercials, asking questions like, “Did you ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Why have those commercials overshadowed his other accomplishments? The answer lies in the tumultuous years of the early 1970s.

 

Euell was fond of bragging that he could easily find enough wild plants to make a lunch wherever he happened to be. When a reporter called his bluff in New York City and challenged him to actually try it in Central Park, Euell managed to prepare a full meal of cooked greens, salad, fried fish from a pond, and sassafras tea to drink. All of this, of course, was fully in line with what he wrote in his foraging books. But he did admit in his 1971 book Stalking the Good Life that “many interviewers want to portray me as some kind of weed-eating freak, like the man at the carnival show who eats beer glasses and swallows razor blades.” He didn’t totally dislike this sensationalism, though, and since he had lived in poverty for much of his life, he was always worried about money. So when the Post company offered Euell a contract to star in commercials for their Grape Nuts cereal, he jumped at the chance.

 

That was just too much for the anti-nature scientific establishment of the mid-1970s. Worried that Euell’s commercials might get people interested in foraging as well as in Grape Nuts, the FTC banned the segments from saying that any wild plants were edible on July 4, 1975. Jerome Goldstein noted the irony of passing such a blatant restriction of free speech  on Independence Day in an October 1975 Organic Gardening and Farming article. The message was clear—the FTC didn’t want anybody getting the idea that something growing naturally might be edible, nutritious, or even delicious. Food could only come from nice tidy packages at the grocery store!

 

Euell lived only half a year after the commercials were banned. Anti-foraging interests used his death on December 29, 1975 as an argument against foraging, hinting that he had died of “an undisclosed stomach ailment” from eating “dandelion greens, wild onions, and sassafras tea.” Actually, Euell died of a heart attack—which, ironically, was most likely due to a preexisting heart condition and some unhealthy lifestyle choices. He was a heavy smoker and ate way too much fat, white flour, and sugar, as the recipes in his foraging books make clear. But the misinformation campaign against foraging convinced untold numbers of Americans that it was actually Euell’s love for wild foods—not his all-too-typical American lifestyle—that killed him.

 

While understanding that it had stemmed from financial insecurity, John McPhee lamented how Euell had “obscured his accomplishments behind a veil of commercial personality.” He wanted to “take those Grape Nuts and blow them from here to Hawaii—to get him out from under them.”

 

Euell’s wife, Freda, wrote him a far better eulogy than the Grape Nuts commercials in the 1979 book Euell Gibbons’ Handbook of Edible Wild Plants. “Euell not only popularized the lavish gifts that nature ahs to offer us in the way of edible wild plants, but he also taught thousands to forage with joy and gratitude and to open their eyes to the wonder and beauty nature provide sin an endless variety,” she wrote. “Possibly more important was the awareness he instilled through his books and lectures of our responsibility in helping nature to maintain the marvelous balance which is literally our life’s blood on this beautiful planet.”

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