A few years ago, in a magazine called Wilderness Way, T.R. Zimmermann gave this recipe for june bugs: Roast them in hot ash until they pop; peel off the legs, wings and wing cases; then eat the crunchy gold flesh. T.R. loves june bugs. Unlike most wild foods, they yield oodles of protein and fat. "Taste like Cracker Jacks," he likes to tell his classes. "One of the most delicious insects in the world."
T.R. is full of weird information like that. His dozens of little self-published books bear titles like Apache Survival Skills, Free Food in the Desert and Survival Slingshot. There's Wild Root Foods, Wild Bark Foods, Wild Leaf Foods and five more in the Wild Something-or-Other Food series. Survival Fishing Techniques promises "never-fail techniques" that don't require modern tackle. For your medical needs, he prescribes Healing Trees of the Southwest and Herbs Indians Used. For a winter unsoftened by civilization, he offers Staying Warm Naturally; for summer, there's Beat the Heat.
He says he makes his living as an "ethnobotanist" and an "outdoor science educator." He says he's not a survivalist, just a guy who knows how to survive. Once, on the phone, I made the mistake of calling him a naturalist.
"Nooo," he hooted. "In Texas, if you call yourself a naturalist, they think you run around in the nude."
He holds academic credentials -- he's done some postgraduate work in biology at Sam Houston State University -- but he began his field research long before college, as a two-year-old in north Texas. At a picnic, he grabbed a red berry off the ground and popped it in his mouth. His mom, a city woman, ordered him to spit it out. His grandmother, an Osage healer, said not to worry, that a hackberry wouldn't poison the boy. T.R. felt a flash of triumph. From that moment on, he likes to say, he's been eating wild things "and having a good old time."
The phrase strikes me as odd. Eating weeds and bugs counts as a good old time? And what about the experiences that allowed him to write Living Rough, Diseases in the Dirt and Some Eatin' Insects? Not to mention Escapes from Danger, which addresses animal attacks, quicksand and sniper ambushes. Scariest of all is Walking Out. "When war or anarchy begins," says its blurb, "and no place is safe from ethnic cleansing or the final solution, one answer is to run. What to carry. How to evade capture. $10."
T.R., though, is far from grim. Even when talking about government thugs or poisonous snakes, he cracks jokes. He focuses on the bright spots in any situation, the ways that a properly educated person can triumph over man or nature. You just have to know what to do, is his message. The world is his supermarket.
"Mm-mm," he likes to say about june bugs. "Can't eat just one."
"Watch out," T.R. tells me. "You're stepping on your lunch."
I lift my foot off a crack in the concrete deck. I had crushed a sow thistle, whose prickly leaves could have been cooked like collards or kale. But this thistle isn't much of a loss, T.R. says. It was past its peak anyway.
We're in the backyard of T.R.'s "lady friend," Helen Davis, a trim woman who laughs at his jokes and drinks his teas. Sometimes Helen hikes with T.R., and sometimes on the weekend they tango with a dance club. She likes to snack on prickly pear cactus, one of T.R.'s favorite survival foods. Helen usually eats it raw; it tastes like green beans. But instead of collecting it in the wild, she usually buys it, dethorned, in the produce section at Fiesta.
Her front yard looks like any other yard in southwest Houston -- trees, grass, potted plants by the door -- but her backyard is a different story altogether. At T.R.'s request, she's left it unmowed, and it's quickly become a miniature jungle. Or, to be more precise, a mini-swamp, a half-wild piece of southeast Texas.
Cattails rise from one corner of Helen's little swimming pool. T.R. loves cattails, and he laments that many grow in polluted water, making them dangerous to eat. These, in Helen's pond, are a known quantity. He pulls a pair of scissors from his many-pocketed vest and demonstrates how he snips the leaves to make a diarrhea-fighting tea. He rubs a cattail's fuzzy top, coating his fingers with pollen, a high-protein delicacy.
"Let her taste some," says Helen.
"You can have a little," he tells me. I rub some of the yellow dust off his fingers. It's bland, like undoctored oat bran. T.R. licks his hand clean.
He likes cattail stems even better. Peeled, they yield a white crunchy vegetable stick, edible either raw or cooked. "Delicious," T.R. enthuses. He's heard that you can eat the roots, but his own experiences in that department have been poor. Too many fibers.
Water hyacinths cover the rest of the pool. Most of the world considers them a noxious, waterway-clogging weed, but here in Helen's yard, their round waxy leaves look innocuous and downright ornamental. T.R. likes to eat them steamed, like spinach, and he says that they make fabulous compost, the world's best green manure. Helen keeps them mainly to discourage neighborhood kids from swimming. (T.R., for the same reason, spreads the rumor that an alligator lurks in the water.)
In a pavement crack next to the pool, T.R. spots oxalis, a little green cloverish plant with yellow flowers and fruits that look like Barbie-sized okra. Some people call it wood sorrel, and it tastes lemony, like the sorrel you buy in gourmet stores. T.R. says it's good in salads, but only in limited quantities. Oxalis contains lots of oxalic acid, and a buildup will give you kidney stones.
Lots of things will hurt you if you eat them wrong. Evening primrose, a pretty pink wildflower, is poisonous raw but fine if you cook the flowers and leaves in a change of water. Prepared right, T.R. says, yaupon leaves make a pleasant caffeinated beverage. Prepared wrong, they make "an interesting vomiting experience."
He continues his inventory of the yard, listing the plants' medicinal and food uses. In another pavement crack he finds pepper grass, whose seeds look and taste like the ones you'd find inside a chile pepper. By the gate he spots a dayflower. Uncooked, its roots taste like raw biscuit dough; cooked, they taste like biscuits. Nearby is prairie tea, which relieves dehydration. And morning glories: You can sauté the leaves and flowers in olive oil, and the fibrous little tubers taste like sweet potatoes.
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A flash in the pool catches my eye.
"Was that a goldfish?" I ask.
"There's minnows, too," T.R. says. "There's as much protein in a pound of minnows as in a pound of salmon." He looks at the pond, and at the yard, and at Helen. He is a satisfied man. "If the world goes kaplooey," he says, "we have everything we need right here."