John Muir's Menu
by J. Parker Huber
Many hikers and climbers know of John Muir's minimalist approach to preparing
for a wilderness adventure: "I rolled up some bread and tea in a pair
of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off." (In this he resembled
the South African Bushmen, who make ready for a journey of a thousand miles
in 90 seconds.) A closer examination of the dietary habits of the Sierra Club's
founder suggests a connection between Muir's Spartan fare and the elegiac quality
of his prose: the great man was starving to death.
Austerity was part of Muir's heritage. As a child, he was raised on paternal
severity and Calvinist self denial. His Scottish diet featured oatmeal
porridge with a little milk or treacle for breakfast; vegetable broth and
mutton for lunch; boiled potatoes, barley scones, and tea with milk and sugar
for dinner. "We
were always hungry," Muir lamented, "about as hungry after as before
meals." As William O. Douglas noted in Muir of the Mountains, at a very
young age Muir "acquired the habit of eating very little--a habit that
was to stay with him all his life." The most Muir ever weighed was 148
pounds; the least, 90. Both extremes were recorded when he circled the
globe in 1903 and 1904; ptomaine poisoning in Russia caused his diminution.
When asked what kind of bread he took to the mountains, Muir replied, "Just
bread." At his home in Martinez, California, he'd buy sourdough at an
Italian bakery. In Yosemite, he'd secure French bread at Black's Hotel, or
soda bread from Degnan's. Sometimes he would bake cakes of unleavened flour
over the coals. His preference, however, was "feeding on God's abounding,
inexhaustible spiritual beauty bread."
In the autumn of 1872, Muir set out for the summit of Mt. Ritter, a crust
of bread fastened to his belt. His immutable breakfast of bread and tea that
morning was almost his last. Scaling a cliff, he came "to a dead stop,
with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move
hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall." He
didn't. Summoning preternatural strength from an unknown source ("the
other self, bygone experience, instinct, or Guardian Angel"--apparently
not protein reserves) he gained the top. Power does not come from PowerBars
When traveling with others, Muir could sometimes be persuaded to expand his
menu. On an expedition to Mt. Whitney in 1875, each participant carried, in
addition to bread and tea, "a block of beef about four inches in diameter,
cut from the lean heartwood of a steer."
"Muir never lived off the land," reports historian Michael P. Cohen. "Since
he wasn't a hunter or fisherman, he was frequently hungry." Even when
his money ran out and he was "faint" and "giddy" from
hunger on his 1,000-mile tramp from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867,
he rejected wild rice and corn, subsisting instead for five days on soda crackers
and water. When money from his brother arrived, he broke his fast with gingerbread.
Only in desperate circumstances did Muir dine directly from nature. In the
autumn of 1871, "far and high in the mountains" with bread gone,
he feasted on manzanita berries "like a bear." Another time he followed
the example of hummingbirds and sucked nectar from the long tubes of Zauschneria,
California fuchsia. He also savored the sweetness of sugar-pine sap, preferring
it to maple sugar.
In the forests of Nevada, in October 1878, Muir observed Indians harvesting
pine nuts, "their main dependence--their staff of life, their bread." His
account is matter-of-fact. How unlike fellow naturalist Henry David Thoreau,
who found in wild food a path to transcendence! In 1851, for example, Thoreau
discovered white acorns to be "unexpectedly sweet and palatable....To
my taste they are quite as good as chestnuts. Their sweetness is like the
sweetness of bread... the whole world is to me the sweeter for it. How
easily at this season I could feed myself in the woods!"
Thoreau would try anything once--even oak sap. The poet Ellery Channing,
who walked with him frequently, said he had an "edible religion." "Gathering
berries in our field," Thoreau wrote, was "gathering health and
happiness and inspiration and a hundred other far finer and nobler fruits
Even the austere Scotsman indulged in wild berries with unabashed pleasure: "Never
before in all my travels, north or south, had I found so lavish an abundance
of berries as here [in Alaska]," he wrote, "the largest and finest-flavored
of all the huckleberries and blueberries I ever tasted." Yet he does
not extol these fruits with Thoreau's sacramental verve. He is not swelled
with ecstasy and gratitude. They do not release his sensuality, as do the
wind and the rain.
Nor did our daring explorer exhibit the slightest sense of adventure in his
choice of beverages. He recognized only two varieties of tea, "weak and
strong, the stronger the better." He didn't care for herbal infusions.
Once in Alaska, having run out of black tea, he boiled a common heath,
Ledum groenlandicum, for his companions, but declined to drink the "rank-smelling
liquor" himself. Thoreau, by contrast, rejected conventional stimulants
("Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee,
or of an evening with a dish of tea!"), preferring the delights of the
sylvan herbarium. In the Maine woods, he agreeably sampled every plant
his Indian guides did: "We could have had a new kind of tea every night." His
favorite was the wintergreen flavor of creeping snowberry, Gaultheria hispidula.
Fasting was an intrinsic part of Muir's explorations, so much so that he
resented the necessity of eating. "Rather weak and sickish this morning,
and all about a piece of bread," he complained in 1869. "Can scarce
command attention to my best studies, as if one couldn't take a few days'
saunter in the Godful woods without maintaining a base on a wheat-field and
grist-mill. Like caged parrots we want a cracker."
In 1873 Muir returned to Yosemite after a heavy dose of civilization "to
run out for a while to say my prayers in the higher mountain temples." Provisions
were unimportant, even unwanted: "A fast and a storm and a difficult
canon were just the medicine I needed." In 1875 he climbed Mt. Shasta
on a 2 a.m. breakfast of coffee and frozen venison broiled on coals. Though
a snowstorm pinned him on the mountain that night, he survived. By the next
morning he was safe but still not hungry: "We had been so long without
food that we cared but little about eating." Two years later, a ramble
through the San Gabriel Mountains left him breadless "a day before reaching
the settlements, but I felt all the fresher and cleaner for the fast."
Muir could run on almost nothing, and often did. "After my twelve-mile
walk" in Glacier Bay, Alaska, "I ate a cracker and planned the camp." At
Sum Dum Bay, he admitted that he "had fasted too long [he doesn't say
how long] to be in very good order for hard work." Nevertheless, he scrambled
for two hours "through thorny chaparral and across steep avalanche taluses
of rocks and snow," seeking a glacier before breakfast.
Yet Muir was not always so ascetic. In 1880, he traveled in Alaska with the
Reverend Samuel Hall Young and Young's dog Stickeen. Rising one morning
at five to explore Taylor Glacier, Muir left untouched the breakfast of bread,
beans, venison, and coffee that Young had thoughtfully prepared the night
before. He took with him only bread--and Stickeen. Seventeen hours later
the two returned, wet and weary. On this occasion, before telling Young of
their adventures, Muir ate a veritable feast of "clam chowder, fried
porpoise, bacon and beans, 'savory meat' made of mountain kid with potatoes,
onions, rice and curry, camp biscuit..." Finally, over dessert of wild
strawberries and coffee, Muir told of his perilous crossing of a crevasse
on an icebridge, the story of Stickeen.
Another rare recorded instance of the stirring of Muir's gastronomic juices
was when dining with the Indians of Admiralty Island. There he ate gull eggs
and wild celery ("the petioles were hollow but crisp, and tasted well"),
liked the potato-salmon stew, but was most pleased--wouldn't you know it?--by
the turnips they served peeled and sliced. "These we ate raw as dessert,
reminding me of turnip-field feasts when I was a boy in Scotland."
While Muir roamed from one end of the continent to the other, his tastes
were bounded by the stone walls of the croft. When his Native companions ate "the
hips of wild roses entire like berries," Muir was "laughed at for
eating only the outside of this fruit and rejecting the seeds." Sometimes
we may sympathize with his squeamishness, as when he politely declined "the
back fat of a deer, preserved in fish oil and seasoned with boiled spruce
and other spicy roots." He did attempt seal once in Alaska, finding it "excellent,
dark-red, and very tender, with a taste like that of good venison." He
notes the Natives eating seal liver, walrus, whale skin, and blubber, but
seems content to have watched from a distance. (All great naturalists had
their bounds. Even John James Audubon, who often ate the birds he painted,
balked at steamed buffalo brains.)
"I live on the fat of the land without getting fat," Muir wrote, "crackers
and claret and a birdpicking of fruit." Even this diet proved too rich
for the old Scotsman, who dreamed of "going back to the faith of my fathers
- a poke of oatmeal, a luggie of parritch and a bicker of brose [translation:
oatmeal, oatmeal, and oatmeal]." In the end, Muir longed for the taste
of childhood. But his only appetite was for wilderness.
© COPYRIGHT 1994 J. Parker Huber. Reprinted
on the John Muir Exhibit by written permission of J. Parker Huber.
J. Parker Huber is working on a book about John Muir in New England.
Source: "John Muir's Menu," Sierra,
(Vol. 79, Issue 6, p. 66, Nov-Dec, 1994.)
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