Advice From a Foraging Kingpin

Though he stands alone with this formidable fungi, Alan Muskat says communal foraging is the only way to go. Photo by Mike Belleme

Appropriately enough, Alan Muskat isn’t completely sure what he’s going to present when he visits the WNC Ag Center in Fletcher for the Mother Earth News Fair, April 28–29. In his work as the founder and “chief edutainment officer” of No Taste Like Home, an Asheville-based foraging-education company, Muskat is most comfortable when he steps into the forest without an exact plan for what to gather.

“I’m not about canned anything, whether it’s canned food or canned talk,” Muskat explains. “I feel passionate that the essential problem with all of civilization is always getting what we want, that convenience-store, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s idea of the same choice 24/7.”

Instead, Muskat advocates a philosophy of taking life as it comes — and knowing what to take. Over more than 20 years leading tours with No Taste Like Home, he’s instructed thousands of people in identifying the area’s plentiful native edibles, and his work has been covered by dozens of national outlets ranging from NPR to Elle magazine to the History Channel. Bold Life recently spoke with Muskat about his approach to foraging and the deeper meaning he finds in his work.

When did you first come to the Asheville area?
Alan Muskat: I was about four or five years out of college at Princeton, and I was looking to join a commune or intentional community. I had a girlfriend who knew a couple of women near town with a homestead, so we decided to join them until I decided what was next — and that was 22 years ago!

How traditional is your approach to foraging?
It depends on what you call traditional. People nowadays are taught to approach it in an academic way using books or apps, but hunter-gatherers don’t use those. I don’t think they’re necessary; what is needed is another human being to learn from.

What are the best wild foods available at this time of year?
April is the number-one month for diversity in foraging, although September might be the best for volume. The short list includes morels and ramps, a million spring greens like nettles, chickweed, and dandelion, and a bunch of spring ephemerals like spring beauty.

What should people take away from a foraging experience besides learning what to eat?
Foraging is not an individual pursuit. When you go out as a group, you spread out to cover more ground, and not everyone finds something. But one person might hit the jackpot. If that one person doesn’t share, everyone else starves, and that’s not sustainable — when that person runs out of food and someone else strikes it rich, they’re not going to feel like sharing with the first guy!

That does sound like a very communal attitude.
Most people come to this from today’s American cultural mindset of self-reliance and independence. We glorify that, but it’s a recipe for disaster. In the Christian tradition, pride is the essence of sin, the idea that “I can do this by myself.” A lack of reciprocity is our downfall on every level, both between people and with the natural world as well.

How are you approaching your talk at the Mother Earth News Fair?
You probably know as well as I do. For the last talk I did, I wrote out this whole script, and then I got there and threw the whole thing out. My preference is always to be more spiritual or theoretical, and I find that gets people very inspired. I had a woman abandon a nursing career and join our organization based on my talk last year.

Why does foraging have a spiritual dimension to you?
In my new book, I’m working on this question: what is the essence of foraging? I’m not preaching anything in particular, but to put it in religious terms, you are eating God’s food, not man’s. You aren’t planting what you want and making the Earth produce what you have chosen. It’s in Christianity with “thy will be done,” but it’s also present in Taoism and Zen. I feel very gratified that, after these 20-something years, I’ve come to realize that’s essentially what one is practicing.

The Mother Earth News Fair happens Saturday, April 28 (9am-6pm) and Sunday, April 29 (9am-5pm) at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center (1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher). For more information, see motherearthnewsfair.com or notastelikehome.org.

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