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 brife 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? Hes 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.
Its called peppergrass poor mans 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 is launching a weekly wild food market there April 6 and will teach Asheville fourth-graders how to forage come fall. Next month, Muskat will be in the Triangle, teaching a $60 foraging class April 9 in Chapel Hill, followed by a $75 five-course dinner at Lantern, featuring some of the foods found that day.
Muskats classes teach people to identify the plants and mushrooms that are safe to eat. Dont 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 someones 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 isnt typically grown on farms or sold in stores. Local chefs have foragers that they turn to for items such as native persimmons, watercress, ramps and chanterelle mushrooms. 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 the cookbook Hunt Gather Cook, have made foraging seem approachable to regular consumers.
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, first to study engineering but eventually graduated with a philosophy degree. In college, for the first time, he went hiking and camping, 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.
Eventually, he started teaching others. While he does see teaching people, especially children, about foraging as a way to combat hunger in this country, he also sees his classes as a way to help people.
What Im 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 thats a familiar face.
At the end of our walk, Muskat sees a small patch of white flowers that look like minature violets.
Well, there is only one way to find out, he says taking a bite of the flower. It tastes like wintergreen.
Lucky for me, theres a patch of those same flowers in my front lawn surrounded by wild onions.