A walk in a field with North Carolina wild food expert Alan Muskat is a lesson in turning the familiar into the edible.
Muskat, a 44-year-old man with a slight build and a mop of curly brown hair, carries a wooden basket and a tool he fashioned from a knife and a brush fastened together with duct tape. At a Wake County park, Muskat, myself and a photographer are scanning the ground for the food under our feet.
He points to a small stand of spindly greens: “Do you recognize that?”
“Wild onions?” I reply, recognizing what I consider to be a weed that infests my front lawn.
To Muskat and other foragers, those onions can be pickled, used to make pesto and even buried in salt to make a homemade onion salt.
A few steps away, Muskat asks, “How about this one? Does it look familiar?” He’s pointing to low-growing star-like plant with stalks emanating from the center and fringed with small round leaves. He picks a few leaves for me to taste. It tastes peppery, like arugula.
“It’s called peppergrass – poor man’s pepper,” Muskat explains.
The 30-minute walk continues the same way with Muskat stopping every few feet to point out a plant that can be served as a salad or sautéed like greens. He talks about how dandelion leaves are good for your liver and how apple trees and tulip poplars can indicate good morel hunting spots.
Muskat teaches foraging classes every Sunday in Asheville, where he lives. He’ll be in Charlotte July 13-14 for a wild foods workshop co-sponsored by the social networking group Good Eats & Meets.
Muskat’s classes teach people to identify the plants and mushrooms that are safe to eat. Don’t go out in your front yard and just starting pulling up plants without knowing what they are. And follow basic etiquette, ask permission to forage one someone’s private land and know that you are not supposed to take any plant life out of public parks.
Muskat is part of a larger culinary trend as more attention is being paid to food that isn’t typically grown on farms or sold in stores. Some high-end restaurants in larger cities have foragers on staff, such as Daniel in New York, the flagship restaurant of famed French chef Daniel Boulud. Bloggers like Hank Shaw, author of “Hunt Gather Cook,” have made foraging seem approachable to regular consumers.
Muskat has sold wild foods to more than 50 restaurants, including The Biltmore Estate and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. He co-founded The REAL Center, a school for natural living, and he’s foraged with the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern and Andrew Weil.
Muskat had a circuitous route to making a living off hunting wild foods. He grew up in Miami, the son of Jewish immigrants born in Cuba, and lived what he describes as a “sheltered, suburban” childhood. He went to Princeton University to study engineering but eventually graduated with a philosophy degree. In college, he went hiking and camping for the first time, learned to cook and studied Taoism, with its respect for nature.
All three experiences, he says, led him down this path of taking advantage of wild foods for his own consumption and to sell.
While he sees teaching people, especially children, about foraging as a way to combat hunger, he also sees his classes as another way to help people.
“What I’m trying to teach people is to feel at home in the world,” he says. “You can go halfway around the world and see chickweed, and say, ‘Oh that’s a familiar face.’”
Weigl: 919-829-4848. Kathleen Purvis contributed to this story: 704-358-5236.
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