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Mark Musick transformed the way Seattle thinks of local, seasonal food

Local, seasonal, organic? Seattle food pioneer Mark Musick has been preaching it all for four decades.

THE YEAR WAS 1977, and ambitious cooks couldn’t even find a leek in Seattle. Belgian endives were literally imported from Belgium. There were no booths of foraged berries and mushrooms at the neighborhood farmers markets, partly because there were no neighborhood farmers markets.

Then there was Mark Musick’s harvest at Pragtree Farm, a 20-acre cooperative in Arlington. On the property, he and other members gathered purslane and purple vetch tips, wild mustard, lamb’s quarters and another “exotic” crop — arugula.

Garnished with edible flowers like calendula petals and fava-bean blossoms, the greens became a seasonal salad when Musick and partner Robin Stern supplied them to Rosellini’s Other Place restaurant in Seattle. There, chef Bruce Naftaly blended them in an avant-garde, ever-changing signature of what we now think of as Northwest cuisine. The “Impromptu Salad” left some customers asking, “Why am I eating my lawn?” and others ordering a second bowl for dessert.

By one account, the dish forever changed the way Seattle viewed salads. And Musick himself, over more than 40 years, has influenced our lives far beyond the appetizer course. The 69-year-old has been a Johnny Appleseed of sustainable living in the Pacific Northwest, a polished combination of community organizer, grower, marketer and connector.

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Without Musick’s quiet, behind-the-scenes guidance, our access to local foods — and our ideas about what we should eat and why — likely would be very different.

“One could use all sorts of agricultural metaphors,” says Naftaly, who went on to open Le Gourmand, Seattle’s quintessential farm-to-table restaurant, long before the concept became mainstream.

“He sowed all the seeds; he cultivated the ground for the area.”

Musick’s big-picture vision always has shaped daily details like Pragtree’s broccoli plantings (“It was like broccoli the first day of the vegetable kingdom,” Naftaly recalls thinking after his first bite) or innovations like using UPS to ship peerless produce to nationally famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. (“My mouth absolutely fell open” at a sample package, owner Alice Waters wrote in a 1983 letter preserved in the Washington State University Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections.)

“We knew those people were decision-makers,” says Musick. “We knew we were impacting the culture.”

That would make a difference when, say, an initiative to save farmland hit the ballot. Even the salad, to him, expressed philosophies of living — permaculture, extending harvest seasons, reducing waste — as much as eating.

“We were building the constituency for a better kind of agriculture,” he says.

AN UNASSUMING FIGURE with a rich, mellifluous voice, Musick was…

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