Land of Living
Farmer & Chef South
June 11th, 2015
In the beginning, and I do mean the very beginning, we were all foragers, living off the land and what it supplied, naturally. Whether that be vegetation, insects or animals, we hunted and gathered to survive. It was instinctual and primary. Through the years, humans evolved and created our modern conveniences. We have a grocery on practically on every corner, and at least in the U.S., foraging to survive is simply not the case anymore. I personally am fascinated by the Paleo diet: eating what our ancestors ate, which was primarily vegetation, fruit, some nuts, meat and fish. Mostly devoid of refined sugars, preservatives, grains and dairy, proponents say the Paleo diet can be a miracle for health and digestion. Possibly, yet for the majority of us, it’s also easier said than done.
Alan Muskat, Owner of “forage-to-table” event company No Taste Like Home, shares his views on living around the basis of the original diet. WNC is naturally fertile ground for foraging, and as someone who is firmly grounded in nature, his thoughts on where we get our food and how we sustain our ecosystem are explained through that noninterference lens.
CSL: What started you on this journey to help people find these treasures of the land?
AM: I did it for myself. I was out of college, not wanting a job, looking for a commune to join. I wanted out of the system. Very much like the guy in Into the Wild, who was my same age and was also basically, escaping his parents. In college, I had done three things for the first time: cooked, hiked, and discovered Taoism. All three led me to want to become more natural. Another influence was early Marxism, which was a lot about alienation — first of all, from nature. The idea — or my idea, at least — is that in a natural world, people aren’t greedy; they’re satisfied. This is the “Golden Age” many writers like Ovid refer to. And it exists, in many ways, with hunter-gatherer societies.
Eventually I realized that it’s not about going ‘backward’ but rather, about integrating the important things we’ve lost along the way. Above all, that’s the feeling that we’re relatively safe here, on Earth: that this is our home, and the whole of nature conspires to support us because we’re not just on the earth, we are the earth. This is the larger system, the ecosystem, that I no longer want to get out of. Nature includes human nature, and you throw the baby out with the bathwater when you think humans are “bad.”
I’ve come to see that it’s not about finding treasures; it’s about realizing the treasure that is all of life, even the parts we think are “wrong.” It’s romantic to think of a golden age, but like the writer AE says, “I knew the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it but that it had never passed away from the world.”
CSL: Why do you think, particularly in WNC, this practice has taken off?
AM: WNC is inherently DIY, down to its geography. The Scotch-Irish moved here because of the familiar nooks and crannies where they could basically do their own thing. That’s exactly what plants do, which explains our spectacular biodiversity: the greatest, outside of the tropics, in the world. People also come to Asheville to heal, to recover from a life-destroying culture, which involves, like I said, getting more natural.
There is no natural food, by the way, except what grows in nature. Only the food that thrives in an area on its own, that is, wild food, can truly be called local or sustainable. Otherwise you will forever be pulling — or spraying — “weeds.” It’s also all “genetically-modified” by virtue of being selectively bred. We are what we eat, and we have all become domesticated — and weaker for it. When you go natural, on the other hand, it’s not just the food that’s wild and free.
CSL: Any advice for novice foragers?
AM : DIY is DUM. The word to remember is ASK. Foraging takes practice and guidance. Like any skill, you can’t learn it from a book. Books — specifically, so-called “field guides” — are for losers: life-losers, that is. That’s what happened to the guy in Into the Wild. He thought he could go off alone with a book and survive. But the only field guide worth having is one with two legs.
Foraging is not about “prepping” — getting out of a system that is destined to collapse — and being a survivalist. It’s about community transition. This is something Asheville is rich in people who realize that’s it’s not about DIY but DIT, doing it together.
CSL: Tell us about what you have coming up, event-wise.
AM: I have tours running, by arrangement, two to five times a week. I have partnerships with Aloft, The Omni Grove Park Inn, Old Edwards Inn, The Greenbrier, and a number of local restaurants. These will all cook up whatever we find, on the spot, for free.
CSL: If there is one mantra you live by, what would that be?
AM: “It’s OK.” The essential thing I’m teaching — because it’s the one thing I have to learn — is that life is good: that the universe is a friendly place to be. Some would put that as “God exists” or “everything turns out for the best.” Wild food shows us that The Garden of Eden was and is real. Scarcity, and the fear associated with it, is an artificial creation of civilization, which I like to call “Scare City.” Life doesn’t have to be so hard, such a struggle. We don’t have to be so hard on ourselves. That’s why “it’s OK.”