Are A Master Forager’s Oʻahu Beachcombing Tips Relevant Today?

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50 years ago this month, The New Yorker published a long profile of Euell Gibbons, a wild food expert then living in Pennsylvania. Author John McPhee listed, quite lyrically, the foods Gibbons scavenged and served:

Hot biscuits of cattail-root flour, Mayapple marmalade, chokecherry jelly, dandelion-chicory coffee, candied mint leaves, hickory-maple chiffon pie, and sweet blackberry wine.

But, earlier in his foraging career, Gibbons had foraged a much different menu—here on Oahu.

From his base, a shack near Diamond Head, Gibbon threw feasts starring hearts of palm, mahi mahi, opihi, kukui nut relish, guava, and wild boar, all foraged or hunted at no cost.

Gibbons foraged on this island for three years, his longest-ever foraging stretch.

He poured his knowledge—much of it, he freely admits, shared with him by native Hawaiians—in Euell Gibbons’ Beachcomber’s Handbook.

euell gibbons beachcombers handbook

The book is part how-to guide, part recipe book, part travelogue, and part manifesto. One of my favorite passages so far:

What was accomplished, and what did I prove by those three years? Very little in the eyes of some. An ex-friend of mine, who is a professor of economics, once tried to argue that my beachcombing experience offered no solution to the frustrations and complications of modern life, because it was not universally applicable. “What would happen,” he asked, “if everyone ran off and became a beachcomber?” I couldn’t resist observing that in that case, more of them would be likely to survive than if everybody became professional economists. As I say, he’s an ex-friend.

I’ve been picking my way through it, reading about fishing here, wild goat hunting among Maui’s lava fields there—you don’t need to read it cover to cover.

Some of his foraging advice is outdated. The downed palms Gibbons harvested were cleared to make room for buildings that are now at least 60 years old. Most new construction is happening on this side of the island, and I don’t see a lot of palms where they’re building the new Chuck E Cheese.

And the open spaces he foraged are, I suspect, both fewer in number and better-patrolled than they were in the 1950s.

Still, it is possible to forage quite a lot of food.

A neighbor of our family in ʻEwa Beach goes spearfishing on calm days—I’ve seen him climb from the surf with 5 tako and more than 20 fish.

We have family who forage oranges, mangoes, papaya and coconut from their own trees. They always have more than they can eat.

We’re starting our own garden in fits and starts. Just herbs for now, but we have big plans.

kapolei herb garden
One revelation from Gibbons’ book is the number of wild foods that haven’t made it in to commercial production, at least as far as I can tell. Have you ever heard of this?

My favorite cooking banana is the Maiʻamaoli, the most common wild banana of the islands. The beautiful, orange-colored flesh is delicious when well-cooked.

I’ve never seen these, although it looks like there’s a farm on the Big Island that sells them.

It must be said, my ignorance on this issue is expansive. And, of course, what we now call “foraging” is what our ancestors called “living”. We can’t forget that.

One of the things I hope to learn through you, readers, and through this website: What do folks grow or gather on the west side? Who are the master foragers of today?