[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has known Gail for nearly 30 years.]
Wildfood Man Peter Gail died on Valentine’s Day, 2018, in Cleveland. This is my story about Peter.
(Peter Gail’s books on wild foods and the Amish are available from www.dandyblend.com)
TOURING THE AMISH COUNTRYSIDE with PETER GAIL
It was a grey winter day driving eastbound on US 422 in northeast Ohio with Peter Gail. The clouds made it difficult to see very far into the rural countryside. The sound of the windshield wipers provided a steady background tempo to our conversation.
The temperature was in the high 30s, and it was about the same temperature inside Peter’s van. I was tense from the cold, hunched a bit, trying to stay warm. I’m from California. Peter was relaxed, smiling, pointing out each feature as we drove along. He’s a Cleveland resident and used to the cold. On this day he was my tourguide to the Amish countryside of Ohio.
Peter Gail’s most famous business associate was Euell Gibbons, who authored Stalking the Wild Asparagus and starred in Grape Nuts cereal commercials in the 1970s, making him the butt of comedians jokes about eating everything from old tires to freeway overpasses.
That was a long time ago. During those years, Gail edited Gibbons’ articles for Boys Life magazine, and worked with him and others to develop the National Wilderness Survival Training Camp for the Boy Scouts. Together they developed and taught a foraging course at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When Gibbons had become nationally famous from the commercials and Johnny Carson’s jokes, and was overbooked, Gail occasionally substituted for him on the lecture circuit.
Gibbons died way back in 1975 — no, not from eating a poisonous plant! — and Peter Gail has tirelessly carried the torch for wild food enthusiasts.
Though Gail has made no cereal commercials, he has appeared on such national TV shows as Good Morning America, Lifetime TV’s “Our Home Show,” Food TV Networks “Extreme Cuisine, has authored numerous books on the subject of wild foods and related topics, and he continued to lecture about the virtues of the ubiquitous wild plants and those people who still use them as a part of daily life.
While Gail was best known on the national circuit for his “Dinner Underfoot” and “Healing with Weeds” lectures and workshops, locally he was even better known for his work among the Northeastern Ohio Amish community, the 4th largest in the world. As a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and anthropologist, Gail studied the Amish for over 50 years to discover the lessons their simple life style has to teach us. He interpreted that knowledge in books, articles, and his tours for those interested in learning more about these people who seem firmly rooted in the technology of a century ago.
Perhaps Gail’s most popular book is his “Dandelion Celebration”, a book which tells you everything you’d ever want to know about dandelions. He’s also authored the “Delightful Delicious Daylily”, “Violets in Your Kitchen,” “The Messy Mulberry and What to do with it”, and “The Volunteer Vegetable Sampler”, which profiles the culinary and medicinal values of 41 of the most common backyard weeds.
The least known of Gail’s pursuits outside of Northern Ohio were the educational field experiences he provided for people curious about the Amish and what they have to teach us. Several times a month in spring, summer and fall, he would load up a bus or van, and take people into the heart of the Northeastern Ohio Amish community. These were day-long affairs, where his people were treated to a lunch at an Amish home, told the history and beliefs of the Amish, and then taken to their stores to look at and buy Amish goods.
On one cold day in December, it was just me and Peter. We turned off the main freeway while it was drizzling, onto a secondary road. Occasionally I’d spot an Amish farm house — painted white, neat, orderly. Even though it was drizzling and December, nearly every farmhouse has a long outside clothes line full of clothes blowing in the breeze.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Amish, they use no electricity and shun most modern so-called conveniences. This means no electric lights, no electric refrigerators, no television, no CDs–very few of the modern devices that most folks take for granted. They have managed to live their lives, and produce most of their needed items, by simple old-fashioned ingenuity. Wood stoves, oil lamps, use of ice, horse-drawn tractors, building houses in such a way to take advantage of the heat of summer, and be protected from the cold of winter, large windows near the work areas, hand tools, and the use of diesel and small gasoline engines to generate power.
The light rain had let up just a bit, and we turned eastward on a smaller road. We were in a completely rural area, where the roads were lined by shallow ditches, where the houses have enough space between them to put an average city block, and no traffic lights, no street lights, no offensive neon.
“Have you ever had really good, natural beef jerky?” asked Peter.
“I’m sure I have,” I responded.
“I mean, really good, really natural?”
“Well, just what I purchased at the market.”
“Wait ’til you try what they sell here,” smiled Peter. “There’s nothing like this.”
Before we get to market, we note a farm house with lots of junk and rusty tools and cars piled about.
“That’s not Amish,” Peter said matter-of-factly, nodding towards the rust and the tallish weeds that nearly obscure them.
“One of the major contrasts between the neat, clean Amish places and the ‘Yankees,’ as they call all us non-Amish in this region — is that the Yankees live in that kind of trash — old rusty cars, junk all around their houses. You won’t see that around the Amish homes. We, by the way, are called “English” in most other Amish settlements — it all depends who the non-Amish settlers were who the Amish encountered when they got to different regions. Here, they encountered Connecticut Yankees.”
We arrived at the market, a small white store set back just a bit from the road. It was a very low-key setting. We get out of the van, put on our coats, and entered the small store. It was a meat market, and it smelled really good. In the deli counter, I saw varieties of cheeses, and lots of cuts of meats. Peter talked with the bearded Amish man wearing a white, blood-stained apron, as if they have known each other for years. (I later learn that in fact they actually had known each other for 20 years) They exchange a bit of news, who’s gotten married, who died, how’s business. I stand there quietly, listening, taking it all in, considering how out-of-place this simple conversation would be in any of today’s jam-packed modern supermarkets. But it is all very simple, very natural, the way people were meant to interact.
“It’s over there,” instructs Peter, towards me. “The beef jerky.”
David Kurtz, the Amish butcher, pulls out the container of jerky from the cooler and puts it up on the far end of the deli counter. Peter rummages through the container, picking out several choice pieces and fills a bag for himself, and I do the same. A lady behind the counter weighs it, prices it. We pay for it and begin eating. It’s fresh, succulent, not rock-hard, and contains an old-world flavor.
“It’s really good,” I tell Peter. In fact, it’s great, but I’m cold, I’m the outsider, I’m just the observer and I don’t want to act overly-enthusiastic for fear of seeming silly.
“Yes, quite good,” I repeated, with a mouth full of the jerky. It turns out that this lady behind the counter was one of Peter’s former “tourists,” who became so fascinated with the community that she ultimately moved out there, and got a job working for the Amish. They then engaged in another conversation, discussing her experiences over the years since they have seen each other, while I look around at the wall decorations, the products I’d not seen in years, such as the blocks of laundry soap, balm for cows’ udders, and candies I hadn’t seen since childhood.
I was still chewing on a bit of the jerky as we headed up another rural road, encountering not a single other car the entire way.
“That farm over there belongs to Nora Miller,” explains Peter, “who runs a wonderful bakery out of her home.”
I’d already begun to hear some of the same names repeated and so I asked Peter for clarification.
“There are some 1600 Amish families in this community. Of them, some 600 are Millers, some 300 are Yoders and some 150 are Bylers. Almost 2/3 of the families have one of those three surnames. It makes it really difficult for the mailman!!”
“Are they all related?” I asked.
Many are, but not necessarily very closely,” he replied. “These names go way back, and a name like Miller originally was a description of an occupation. A guy with that name ran a flour mill or a saw mill or whatever, so people can have such names and not have any blood relationship at all. This settlement was started by a Miller back in 1886, and back in the 50’s, one of the local Miller’s made the Guinness Book of World Records by having 489 living descendants. That spawned a bunch of new Miller families in this area! For that matter, “Beil” in German means axe or hatchet, so a “Beiler” could have been a logger, or firewood supplier, one who went to the woods with his axe and made lumber. In this area they have Anglicized the name to Byler”
There was a light wind, and the rain stopped. It was still cold and foggy. I enjoyed looking at the countryside, and anywhere in any direction would make a beautiful postcard. It was that sort of place.
“This cabinet shop is really going to blow you away,” Peter warned me, as we pull into a long driveway up to a white farm house. There is a little sign that says “Custom Wood products.” Peter leads the way, not knocking, but simply entering the shop. He explained that he would never enter a home without knocking but that this was a business entrance. It all looked the same to me.
We entered the public front for the wood business and no one is about. Peter showed me the various wood works around the room — intricate wall carvings, toys, benches and chairs, bowls, book shelves, and beautiful inlaid stools. All the work was beautiful, artful, with an attention to the finest detail. After about 15 minutes of looking about, Peter led the way to the cabinet shop.
“Remember, they make all this without electricity,” he told me. “This is really going to blow you away.”
We entered a large airy woodshop with plenty of windows. At first, it seemed empty. There were no lights on, no radio blaring, no TV in the corner. It was quiet. But there was a lone white-haired man off to one side working on an inlaid stool, one of those which we had just seen in the finished state, and Peter walked over to him. The man was polite and deliberate as he spoke to Peter. I highly admired his stool, but he said nothing. Among other things, you’ll discover that the Amish eschew self-importance, and to indulge in my admiring words would be regarded as prideful. He chose silent acknowledgment, and then Peter and he talked casually about community activities, dogs, and the upcoming tour schedule. And then we left.
Though I was born in California, and have lived most of my life there, I did live in Chardon, Ohio when I graduated from high school in 1973. One of my jobs was working as a pressman’s helper and printer in Middlefield, Ohio, where I worked among the Amish. However, I never entered any of their homes or places of work in all those months I lived there. Now I was able to enter into this other-world of the Amish, via my guide Peter Gail. I was visiting Peter as a friend and colleague. Peter wasn’t “on,” performing as it were, as he might for a regular tour bus. It was just he and I, and so he had the chance to talk with his Amish friends while I listened in and looked around.
Here was a people, self-reliant, not relying as much on “the machine” as we do, and they were living well. It took just a bit for an outsider to penetrate into their lives and to see that their lives were not dark and dreary, but bright and cheery and full.
We drove on to another wood shop where we met one of Peter’s Amish friends who works with a scroll saw, making fine Victorian fret and scrollwork decorative clocks, puzzles, wall plaques, intricate shelves and wooden candy dish/ trivet combinations. A small nearby gasoline engine powered the scroll saw. The man, Harvey Byler, stopped his work and chatted with Peter. How’s business, who’s moved, who’s started another line of work, who got married, who died. The man showed some of the work that his 10 year old son had done.
Of course these craftsmen would like Peter — he brings customers to them. But as I looked around the Amish wood shop and listened to their conversation, it was clear there was great mutual respect here, two men from wholly different cultures, finding the best in each other, realizing that they are each valuable links to the other’s culture. They chatted and laughed and Peter discussed a wood carving he wants to buy. Peter suggested that the lighthouse would be great with a lamp in it, but Harvey didn’t know how to respond. After all, the Amish don’t live with electric light bulbs, so putting a bulb into the lighthouse would not be easy, and I could see by the expression on Byler’s face that he was not inclined to do such. Peter changed the subject.
“Harvey, you should come with me to the Columbus Gift Mart in May, and show off your work. You’d really enjoy spending the day there.”
Harvey is silent momentarily, and responded that he might not enjoy spending the day with crowds of people, and he said it with a smile in a way that I assumed Peter should already know this.
We all bid adieu, and Peter and I headed down the road towards Mesopotamia to the shop of Eli Miller. This shop has a more obvious sign, and it is clearly a store front, even though it is just as clearly located right next to his home. No neon, no obnoxious billboards, just a modest sign reading “Eli Miller Leather Shop and Country Store.”
We entered the dark store that seemed empty at first. Remember, this is December indoors. Walking into the store is like passing through a time machine. My eyes saw oil lamps, butter churns, farms tools, cow bells, wood stoves, cast iron utensils — all that is needed for self-sufficient living apart from the grip of the utility companies. My eyes were still adjusting to the relative darkness, and exploring row upon row of “old fashioned” tools, while Peter was yelling to the back, “Anyone home?”
Way back in the rear, back beyond all the leather goods such as belts and saddles and footwear, there was an answer. Peter motioned me to follow him and we met Eli, working on a leather saddle. Eli was regarded as a more progressive Amishman — one who didn’t mind if his picture was taken, and who was very involved in community activities. Peter explained to me that Miller was one of the most respected leather crafters in the United States, with saddle and tack on mounted police units all the way from Dade County, Florida to Portland, Oregon.
They then chatted a bit. Who died, who changed professions, who got married, who moved — the usual stuff, and then Eli started discussing and showing some of the leathers he works with, and some of the special requests he gets. Hanging behind him was a set of three leather belts crafted from English bridle leather which he had custom-made for a man from Cleveland who had been on one of Peter’s tours the previous fall.
“Do you have a custom belt for my friend from California?” Peter asks on my behalf. I’d told Peter earlier that I could use a good belt, but I silently wonder how much a “custom” belt might cost. Eli responded that he had many good belts on the rack that he’d recently finished making. I looked and found a good black one that fit me, and I paid Eli his ten dollars asking price – a bargain.
Eli then showed us a new stamp he just received. It was a makers’ stamp for marking leather, though he’d not yet used it.
“Where do you think I should put my mark on the belts?” he inquired of Peter. We looked at belts, considering front side or back side, buckle end or leather end.
“Put it where you can see it,” responded Peter. Eli clearly did not want to be prideful, and wasn’t certain. I took off my new black belt and asked him to stamp it right on the front, just beyond the buckle, which he did.
Eventually, Peter and I departed, and investigated an old pioneer cemetery back behind Eli’s shop. It was built atop a hill as the last resting place for one of the families who settled Mesopotamia back in the late 1700’s. The most recent gravestone is dated 1868, 18 years before the first Amish settler set horses hoof on Geauga County’s clay till soils.
The rain had completely stopped, but I kept my coat on. The last we checked, the temperature was 38 degrees, and rising. We traveled down a two-lane highway, where trees lined the road in places and where the rolling fields showed that the work of the summer was over. Some fields were green, some were brown, some were specked with the common tall weeds of this part of the country, such as curly dock, or teasel, or milkweeds.
As we drove to our next stop, the Amish farm houses always caught my attention. In nearly all cases, there were clothes out on the line. Often the clothes lines were attached by a pulley wheel to a room at the back of the house, and would run all the way out to a barn. There were also gourds suspended in an array like a television antennae, which serve as birdhouses for Purple Martins, which are birds which like to live in colonies and consume tons of mosquitos each season.
We turned onto a paved primary road and quickly turned into the parking lot of a modern building. This was the Middlefield cheese factory. I purchased some fresh cheeses, which were delicious, and looked through the large window in the storefront down on the workers making and processing the cheese. It was quite a sight. The factory and the milk are owned by the Amish but since they can’t have electricity, they have contracted with a cheese company in Wisconsin to bring in the electric equipment and make the cheese, and they hire Amish people to work for them. It is an interesting accommodation which seems to work very nicely.
While we drove, Peter explained that he got interested in wild foods at an early age in San Gabriel, California after his father died. Peter collected “goosefoot” – the common lamb’s quarter — to help feed the family. Lamb’s quarter is arguably one of the most tasty and nutritious greens in the world. He eventually named his company Goosefoot Acres, an enterprise which his family still operates to sell his books and dandelion products. (See www.dandyblend.com).
We headed north, out of Amish territory, towards Chardon. We visited my grandfather’s old farmstead – the barn and house had long since been bulldozed, though the small “Indian mounds” was still prominent behind the old orchard.
After a short visit, we drove on into the darkness to Cleveland.