Eating off the Grid

By Vanessa HuaAugust 13, 2014

AVA CHIN is a New York writer whose debut memoir, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal, was published in May. Chin has learned to see the world with what she calls foraging eyes, the ability to observe what’s out there, not just what she hopes to find field garlic and the mushroom of immortality, wild morel and mulberries and to understand what she can’t change in her relationships with her family.

The events of Eating Wildly take place over the course of a year and a half, ordered by the seasons and edibles she foraged in those months. Honest and evocative, the memoir grew out of Chin’s personal blog, as well as “Urban Forager,” her popular online column for The New York Times, in which she profiled a range and variety of local edible plants and mushrooms, and included their culinary and medicinal histories.

Chin, who earned her doctorate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California, still forages when she visits Los Angeles, for wild lettuce, prickly pear fruit, and lambs quarters growing throughout the city. Her favorite spots are in Laurel Canyon and Griffith Park.

     — Vanessa Hua


The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

VANESSA HUA: When you travel, whether in the city or countryside, do you find yourself foraging as second nature? As a way of seeing the world?

AVA CHIN: I’m always foraging, no matter where I go. In England, where we are right now on a family vacation (my husband is English), I love foraging for blackberries, stinging nettles, garlic mustard, orach, and puffball mushrooms. It’s a forager’s paradise here. You can find wild food in a variety of restaurants not just at high-end ones, but in really good pubs too.

When and how did you begin to forage?

I was the kind of city kid who lacked access to a garden, but who enjoyed fishing locally and eating the wild garlic in our building’s courtyard. But I went on my first official foraging walk in 2008, with an expert naturalist, after a breakup with a boyfriend whom I thought I was going to marry. Foraging helped me to see New York in a completely different light as a place of abundance and plenty which was very important when I was facing turning 40 and still very single. Nature was the antidote to all of the external pressures from my family, and even at my job, where I was trying to gain tenure.

You begin your memoir with an epigraph by Euell Gibbons, author of the bestseller Stalking the Wild Asparagus, published in 1962. He also appeared on The Tonight Show and Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (presented with a wooden plaque, he took a bite) and in a television commercial for Post Grape-Nuts, which he called his “back-to-nature” cereal with a taste of “wild hickory nuts.” Gibbons’s drive to forage grew from what he called a “daydream of independence,” and from a sense of one-upmanship. He said in an interview: “When I crunch into one of nature's treats and know Im enjoying a taste thrill that some of the wealthiest people in the world have never experienced.” What can you tell me about the social and political backdrop that turned Gibbons and many others on to foraging then, compared to the trend reemerging now for yourself and others?

Back in the early 1960s, when Gibbons published Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and folks embraced Gibbons as a kind of naturalist hero. Some of them were peeved when he later started endorsing products and appearing on television. These days the media attention devoted to foraging is largely centered on high-end chefs like René Redzepi at Noma who put foraged food on their menus.

Most foragers that I encounter in the field aren’t famous foodies. They’re largely first-generation immigrants engaging in the foraging practices of their homelands. A lot of them are older, and are gathering plants and mushrooms as food and medicine for themselves or their families.

The foragers who come on my walks are often middle-class, college-educated Americans, many of whom embrace Do-It-Yourself (DIY) philosophies, who are suspicious of our industrialized food system, and who want to know where their food is coming from. Sometimes parents bring their kids who make the best foragers because they want to acquaint them with nature.

Can you talk about how your time in Southern California shaped you as a writer?

At first, like many New Yorkers, I didn’t understand Los Angeles, and I hated it. It was only when I moved to Los Feliz, and became more comfortable driving (I got my license in Brooklyn, but LA turned me into a driver), and began to realize that the city has multiple centers, that I grew to really appreciate it.

I went hiking twice a week in Griffith Park up towards the observatory, and I spent a lot of time in coffee shops in Silver Lake and Echo Park. But when I think about LA, I think about the food. I lived on the edge of Thai Town and Little Armenia. I ate duck over rice from Red Corner Asia restaurant, in the old Thai Elvis spot, which I also used to regularly frequent, and I got the best hummus and kebabs from my local Armenian grocery store every week. I still long for the now-defunct Mission 261 in San Gabriel, which created the most jewel-like, artisanal dim sum I’ve had outside of Hong Kong.

Living in LA gave me the distance to become a better writer and to see New York in a different light. At the University of Southern California, I worked on my novel with writers like Percival Everett, Aimee Bender, T. C. Boyle, and Carol Muske-Dukes. The extremely talented Chris Abani and Sal Plascencia were my classmates.

Back then, it seemed to me that everyone was judging LAs literary community by the one back home, but I always thought that was silly. LA has a thriving scene thats much more intimate, which, in certain ways, makes it more interesting than whats going on in New York.

While writing your foraging blog for The New York Times, you faced criticism from readers who claimed that if everyone foraged as you did, there would be nothing left. In Eating Wildly, you respond by saying that it seemed unlikely that residents en masse would begin foraging, given the lack of free time and the abundance of restaurants in New York. You explained that foraging, if practiced correctly, is sustainable. Are there instances you have witnessed where other foragers weren’t as mindful?

Most foragers I’ve encountered in the field are collecting plants that are considered nonnative invasives things like ginkgo seeds and mugwort, which others often treat with disdain. These are renewable and are found in great abundance in my area. The only times I’ve seen wild plants “abused” is actually on the market end where commercial harvesters pull out wild ramps by the roots. A more sustainable way to forage them is to cut them so the bulbs, or at the very least the roots, remain in the ground so that the plant can propagate.

Where does foraging fit overall in today’s food politics, with the push for locally sourced and organic, as opposed to industrial agriculture and processing?

For many people who are suspicious of our industrialized food system, foraging is a way of eating off the grid, and allows anyone especially those without access to a garden to know exactly where their food is coming from. Foraging will never replace agriculture, nor should it, but it’s a nice antidote to the shrinking biodiversity in our modern diets.

You quote both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the book. How do you see yourself in relation to these male writers, with their tradition of rugged individualism?

Thoreau and Emerson are heroes of mine. I read both as a teenager, but only later, after I became an avid forager, did I begin to familiarize myself with Thoreau’s nature essays like “Wild Apples” and “Walking.” While I could never compare myself to such literary giants, I would like to think that maybe, just maybe, Thoreau, who disliked New York City, might have reconsidered his views had he read Eating Wildly.

Who are your literary heroes, memoirists and food writers? What are you reading now?

Aside from Thoreau, Emerson, and Gibbons, I’m a big fan of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? My summer reading list includes James Browning’s The Fracking King, Dan Barber’s Third Plate, and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox.

In Eating Wildly, you mention your college fiction and plays about single mothers in turmoil and daughters reconciling with long-lost fathers. Ultimately, though, you turned to nonfiction. Why did you choose to write a memoir?

I’m a genre-hopper: I’ve been a fiction writer, a journalist, a slam poet, a playwright, and now a memoirist. From fiction, I learned about crafting narrative, setting, and character. From journalism, I learned about the importance of clarity, and how to edit and be edited. From poetry, I learned to focus on language and image, and to strip away the extraneous. With memoir, I’ve learned about the importance of what to include and what to leave out. I try to apply the best things I’ve learned from every genre to whatever I’m writing at the moment. It’s the story and subject matter that dictates the form for me.

The scenes with your ailing grandmother in the hospital are gripping. After telling you she’s proud of you, she pulls the IV, wires, and tape out of her arm, ready to go to her death. “The plant that mothered us all,” you call her. Later, you enter a nearby park and find the ground splotched purple, heavy with the scent of a wine barrel. You think it might be the mulberries you’ve been searching for. I found that moment inspiring, that ability to step back and see the gifts around us. Can you tell us about foraging as a strategy for dealing with grief?

Time and time again, I was surprised by the ways that the natural world offered me solace. Whether it was grieving the loss of my grandmother or coming to terms with my relationship with my divorced parents between whom the divide is so great that I’ve never seen them in the same room together foraging helped me to have a great understanding of the cycles of life and death, and how to see things for what they truly are.

There are risks and rewards in writing about family, having to do with competing memories and versions of the truth. Have your parents read the blog or the book? Do they agree with your take? And was it any different, any easier, writing about your grandmother, who has passed away?

My grandparents were very private people, and probably would have been appalled to learn that I’d written so openly about our family, although perhaps in secret, I think they would have been proud of what I’d written. The fact that they were no longer with us, however, made it much easier to write about my past and with them.

The person I was most worried about was my mother, whom I wrote about extensively. Long before the book came out, when there was still time to make changes, I sat down with her and discussed all of the moments in which she appeared. I didn’t want her to feel blindsided by what I’d written. Back then, she was fine with it, but now that the book has come out, I think she may have more mixed feelings.

I’m not sure if my father has read Eating Wildly, or even knows about the book. The last time I saw him was several years ago, in a chance encounter on the streets of Chinatown, when I had to make a decision about whether to run after him or simply let him go.

You’re a professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at the City University of New York, your alma mater. A kind of homecoming?

I’m third-generation CUNY I graduated from Queens College, my mother went to CCNY (City College), and my grandmother graduated from Hunter when it was an all-girls school in the Bronx. Because of this, it was thrilling to return home to teach through CUNY at the College of Staten Island.

Our student population is largely working and middle class, and very diverse. Most students work while attending school, and some of them can only take night classes. As an undergraduate, I was the same way working part- or sometimes full-time, commuting to school, living in the outer boroughs of New York.

You write beautifully about the meals you ate with your grandparents, about the love you felt as they heaped your plate with lobster, crab, and other delicacies.

My grandfather was reticent to say words like “I love you,” but he really showed it through his cooking lobster Cantonese, snails in black bean sauce, boiled crabs with Chinese vinegar. He thrived in that kitchen, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t pay more attention to what he was doing when he was actually cooking. What I wouldn’t give for those lobster and crab pots, and to have him show me how to handle his Chinese cleavers! Whenever I asked him afterwards how he made such-and-such, he always answered with the irritating home-cook habit of inexact measurements. “Use a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and however much of X that you like.”

You describe wood ears, “layered like soft, folded ears running up and down a decaying tree trunk” and remember family stir-fries and Chinese supermarkets that you visited with your grandparents. Because taste and smell are so evocative, while writing Eating Wildly, did you return to those foods?

It’s rather hard when you’re writing about food in memoir not to have that kind of Proustian madeleine moment. Recollecting the sights, smells, and flavors of beloved meals was one of the sheer joys of writing this book. When I try to recall an event, I ask myself: What was growing back then? What stage were the plants in? What was I eating?

For me, encountering the wild relatives to the ingredients that my grandfather cooked with, in my own hometown, is a magical experience that never fails to remind me of him, and makes me feel like the entire city is an extension of his kitchen.

Food is love, food is culture. What are you serving your daughter?

Mei Rose is two years old, and up until recently she ate everything we served her: Chinese rice soup (jook, also known as congee), Mexican rice and beans, even vegetable curry. These days, though, she’s become decidedly picky, and prefers noodles, pizza, any kind of berry, cherry tomatoes, and cheese. She’ll eat the butter off of anything.

Has she joined you and your husband on foraging expeditions?

We took Mei on her first mushroom hunt when she was six months old. I basically carried her in an Ergo, while I went hunting for chicken mushrooms, blewits, and maitakes. It wasn’t until she was about a year old that we went hunting for morels and I introduced her to garlic mustard a weedy invasive that makes a great pesto sauce. Soon afterwards, she was finding it on her own and could spot it in other countries more quickly than I could. Recently, I introduced her to her first wild blackberries, which she loved so much, she ate them by the fistful! We had a hard time persuading her to leave the patch.

LARB Contributor

Vanessa Hua is author of Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Books). She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and her two novels are forthcoming from Ballantine. She writes primarily about Asia and the diaspora. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for Fiction, and was a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, PRI’s The World, ZYZZYVA, Guernica, and elsewhere.


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