It’s always open house at the spectacularly situated Ozark Mountain A-frame of Billy Joe Tatum and her physician husband, Harold—even for rattlesnakes. Billy Joe, 48, a kind of cross between Julia Child and the late Euell Gibbons, not only deep-fries rattlers (“They taste like frogs’ legs”) but also minces them into a classy canapé. Other specialties chez Tatum include coon, crawdad, possum and groundhog, and for such wild-food delicacies invitations are much sought after by fellow Arkansas notables like Gov. Bill Clinton and Winthrop Rockefeller Jr. Proclaimed Win (son of the former Arkansas governor and nephew of the late Nelson) after one recent Tatum feast: “It’s a pity the civilized folk in the big cities can’t enjoy what we’ve had here tonight.”
Billy Joe’s guests had just partaken of watercress soup, apple-spearmint salad, pheasant liver pâté, elderberry capers, hickory-nut-stuffed eggs and a flagon or two of Arkansas wine. Then came the entrée—venison Wellington—followed by Billy’s dessert masterpiece: wild strawberry cloud. That, however, was just the sit-down dinner. At midnight another 40 guests dropped in at Wildflower, as Billy calls their place, and she put out a little down-home buffet in case anyone was peckish. It included wild turkey, duck à l’orange, wild mushroom casserole and Arkansas black walnut tarts—with plenty of home-vinted blackberry and elderberry cordials.
Most of that provender was gathered by Billy on one of her five-mile walks through the woods around Wildflower (which is off State Highway 9, between Possum Trot and Melbourne). The meat was mostly brought home by Harold as payment in barter from his patients who know of his wife’s way with wild things in the kitchen. Billy has been at it ever since she and “Hally” met back in 1950, when he was a premed student at the U of Arkansas and she was studying music at Ouachita Baptist U and the College of the Ozarks.
They often went on foraging dates—a pleasure Billy still pursues whether at home or abroad. Spain is great, she says, for wild asparagus “big around as a broomstick.” Even in New York, she finds, “The sidewalk cracks can offer as much as a wooded area. I’ve never been in a city that I couldn’t find wild foods to eat.” You have to wash the harvest carefully, she hastens to add, though she thinks nothing natural (except unchecked-out mushrooms) is as dangerous as food preservatives.
At home Billy is up at 4 a.m., working on upcoming books on country living and medicinal herbs. Her cookbook, Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook and Field Guide, and her lectures at the Smithsonian, the Ozark Folk Center and colleges have established her as the successor to her mentor Euell (Stalking the Wild Asparagus) Gibbons. To relax she plays the dulcimer and puffs on a corncob pipe packed with smoked dried apples or herbs. She admits it’s “an oral fixation—if I’m not talking or kissing a man, I’ve got to have something in my mouth.”
Her daughters Maury, 18, twins Lisa and Lori, 20, and Angel, 26, and son Toby, 16, all know not to disturb Billy when she’s wearing her battered black felt “writer hat.” If she wants to read (she gets through 10 books a week) or be alone, she perches on her “thinking rock,” 365 glorious feet above the wilderness valley floor.
“I never pick anything wild without being in awe that the world is full of useful things—useful to eat, useful to lean on, useful to draw peace from,” marvels Billy. Her favorite? “I can’t single out one plant that is the most incredible, because the whole natural world is incredible.”