Wild Sustenance


September 19th, 2015
Mountain Xpress

Lambsquarters greens are like wild spinach — only, far more nutritious, with significantly more protein, vitamins C and A, and over three times as much calcium. I find them much tastier, too, with a satisfying earthiness reminiscent of mushrooms.

Lambsquarters seed is an older cousin of current health food superstar quinoa. According to Asheville wild foods tour company No Taste Like Home, it’s the most widely available edible wild seed in this area. “Until relatively recently,” says founder Alan Muskat, “lambsquarter, not corn, was the staple grain of North America. Domesticated at least 4,000 years ago, it would not be replaced by maize from Central America for 3,000 years. ”

It stands to reason that wild edible plants are better for us than agricultural produce, says Muskat, a renowned wild foods expert and educator. “We are evolved to eat wild food,” he says. “We’re designed to eat it. We’ve been eating it for millions of years.”

Muskat refers to the book Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson, which presents evidence that cultivated varieties of fruits and vegetables are generally much lower in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and essential fatty acids than their wild counterparts. Robinson mentions lambsquarters directly in the book, saying it has been shown to fight viruses and bacteria, and was used by Native Americans to treat ailments as diverse as burns, stomachache and scurvy.

Muskat says lambsquarters “epitomizes the gray area between wild and cultivated, because it has been cultivated for so long that they can’t even say where it’s ‘native.’” Despite his enthusiasm for wild foods in general, a terrible experience with kidney stones gives Muskat pause about eating too much lambsquarters due to its extremely high oxalic acid content (at 300,000 ppm, the highest of any plant measured), though he says that my Azerbaijani host mother’s method of pre-boiling the lambsquarters for a few minutes and discarding the water before adding other greens would make this much less of a concern.

Foraging, says, Muskat, is “a worldwide phenomenon that I think is only inevitable.” He points to Noma in Copenhagen, four times ranked the top restaurant in the world, which is focused entirely on wild food, as an example of how people are coming to realize that wild is often better. “To me, as a novelty,” he says of agriculture, “there’s a place for the plants that we’ve developed. But to say it in the extreme, it’s not that wild food is so good for you; it’s that anything else isn’t.”

Muskat assumes we can’t all go foraging, however, so he sees a slightly more managed solution: permaculture, a systematical blend of agriculture and foraging that involves working in partnership with nature to grow what would already thrive in an area without human assistance.

Like lambsquarters, dandelion, purslane, violets and nettles are impressively nutritious and abundant here, but are more often considered weeds than superfoods. As with so many other wild edibles, they’re ironically overlooked and undervalued — until they’re on your plate at an expensive restaurant. “You can command surprisingly high prices for something that is free and for many people is a weed,” says Muskat, who sold to restaurants for many years, “because of our collective ignorance and alienation and disempowerment.”

According to Muskat, foraging teaches us that we live in a Garden of Eden, that we don’t need to struggle so much to obtain what we need. Muskat has used foraging as a return to home in his personal life, and his goal now in wild foods education is to help others feel at home in this life, too. “It’s a choice we’ve made, we make every day,” he says, “to take what’s freely given as a gift, or to struggle to do it ourselves, to replace it with what we think is better.”