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Billy Joe Tatum 1932–2012
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78

Wild foods expert, international epicurean gourmand, herbalist, and author, Billy Joe Tatum of Melbourne, Arkansas, passed away on March 26, 2012, at the age of 80. She was born February 15, 1932. Billy Joe won a reputation as the successor to Euell Gibbons (1911-1975), who generated interest in wild foods with popular books such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Alan C. Hood & Co., Inc., 1962).

Billy Joe’s 1976 bestseller, Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook & Field Guide (Workman Publishing Co., Inc.), elevated Gibbons’ wild food foray from the campfire to the gourmet kitchen, raising the perception of wild edibles from simple survival food to epicurean art. She hosted numerous gourmet wild food dinners. For example, the late Winthrop P. Rockefeller, Jr., won the winning bid on a Billy Joe Tatum wild foods feast at a 1979 arts fundraising auction. Guests included Arkansas notables such as Bill and Hillary Clinton — Arkansas governor and first lady, at that time — who were treated to elderberry and blackberry aperitifs followed by watercress soup, apple-spearmint salad, pheasant liver paté, elderberry capers, hickory-nut-stuffed eggs, and venison Wellington.

Soon after publication of her first book, Billy Joe and her physician husband, Harold “Hally” Tatum, MD, were featured in the first chapter of the 1977 National Geographic classic Nature’s Healing Arts.1 An inexhaustible bouquet of energy and ideas, Billy Joe’s vivacious writing was inspired by her philosophy that “the only way to make life fun is to make it a game. I found excitement in the endless possibilities of wild foods.”2

Her fame grew with several appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show” and with TV host Dinah Shore. Personality profiles featuring Tatum appeared in numerous magazines including People, National Geographic, and Gourmet. She took on the persona of an Ozark granny-herbalist (though just in her 40s), with a gray-flecked, waste-length braid decorated with an ever-present buzzard feather, while sporting a corncob pipe.

Billy Joe graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, with a degree in music. She eschewed a Julliard scholarship and career track toward the Metropolitan Opera to marry in 1951. In 1958, after several years in Detroit, the couple decided to return to their native Arkansas. They took out a map, closed their eyes and randomly pointed a finger toward the Ozarks. The finger landed on the map near Melbourne, in Izard County, Arkansas, an Ozark hamlet in need of a physician. In 1958, Dr. Tatum opened a rural practice there. At their famed Ozark mountaintop home, “Wildflower,” they raised five children.

Dr. Tatum noted home remedies on his patients’ charts, and eventually he and Billy Joe collected over 2,500 of these from community members. Until the mid-1970s, even state highways in this remote Ozark location were gravel roads. Home remedies were normal medical practice.

“One of my first remembrances of learning remedies from a patient is the day I trekked into Harold’s office with all four kids in tow,” Billy Joe once shared. “I was just absolutely worn to a frazzle by having a houseful of kids with colds and runny noses.”

Her husband was so tired each day after practicing medicine that she didn’t want to bother him with their own children’s runny noses.

“But that day, feeling so frazzled, I decided I would try a trick of the doctor’s wifery; I would just go and sit in the front of the office and wait for an appointment. And that was the day I happened to meet up with Aunt Tenny. This little old lady started talking to me and invited me to her house and made me a wonderful cup of soothing tea. Before long, she had convinced me that I should drink calming teas, give the children catnip [Nepeta cataria, Lamiaceae] for sleeplessness and dittany [tea; Cunila origanoides, Lamiaceae] to lower temperature..., but Aunt Tenny made me realize that it was very important to put children’s tea in a beautiful, little china cup with a pretty picture on it. She knew all the secrets.”3

Billy Joe became the acknowledged expert on Ozark folk medicines in addition to being an internationally recognized specialist in wild foods. She is survived by her husband, her five children, nine grandchildren, five great grandchildren, three siblings, and two generations of artists, dancers, musicians, writers, photographers — the famous and the obscure — whom she generously entertained and often housed at the Tatums’ Ozark home. This writer is among those who experienced that expansive generous spirit.

—Steven Foster

References

  1. Aikman L. Nature’s Healing Arts: From Folk Medicine to Modern Drugs. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society; 1977.
  2. Foster S. Billy Joe Tatum: A Seasoned Herbalist and Woman for All Seasons. Diversions for Physicians at Leisure. January 1983.
  3. Conrow R, Hecksel A. Herbal Pathfinders: Voices of the Herb Renaissance. “Billy Joe Tatum.” Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press; 1983.