SEPTEMBER 10, 2014
OUTSIDE MY GRANDPARENTS’ home was a walnut tree. It stood uncomfortably close to their front picture window, creating an off-putting darkness that I tried to escape. When I walked from the sidewalk to the front door, I gingerly stepped around its detritus: thickly hulled green orbs that dropped from its branches and rolled around. They would get crushed, blacken, and, eventually, open to reveal a magical wrinkly nut. My memory holds the walnuts there, even though I’m sure the tree did not produce nuts every year of my childhood. There are other plants I remember too: olallieberries grew in the backyard, thickly covering a red fence. The word seemed plucked from a Dr. Seuss book. I thought they had made it up because, well, the berries looked exactly like blackberries. Over that red fence I could see a slide that went into what must have been a pool. This was the San Fernando Valley. This was my early life. Despite the messy debris, it felt urban, clean.
Those plants I remember were separate from what I considered food and had nothing to do with what we, as a family, ate. Eventually I came to backyard gardening, learning the finer points of how to successfully keep plants alive. But even then, my city ears found something oddly repellent when I would hear the word “forage.” It didn’t sound like something a person should be doing with their free time. It sounded like an activity for non-domesticated animals: I picture a seagull hovering over a parking lot — maybe a McDonald’s — looking for a child’s dropped French fry.
But of course there are other, more pleasant ways to think about the word. The Anatomy of Dessert, Edward Bunyard’s book from 1933, describes foraging as “ambulant consumption,” which sounds like good English fun. Richard Mabey, author of Food for Free and dozens of other nature books, deftly walking the line between foraging pro and con, offers us this definition: “Scavenging the surplus.”
When I picked up Ava Chin’s new memoir, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, the thoughts floating around in my mind weren’t so much about food. Instead what I focused on in the title, and what I hoped the memoir could give me in return for my time, was a story of finding love, which was something I seemed to be having a hard time finding as well. Anything, I thought. I, too, will learn to forage!
But romantic love is not where Chin’s memoir starts. Like a skilled forager, we start slowly, at the beginning, peeling back the layers of her childhood. Chin grew up in Queens, in an apartment building with a cement backyard that sprung only the most relentless of weeds through its cracks. In well-paced prose that flashes forward and back, Chin takes her reader in and out of this cement garden. We move between her childhood in Flushing — where she was often cared for by a stern grandmother and grandfather, a man whose cooking of odd ingredients informed her childhood map — and her adult life in Brooklyn. Less present on the page are her mother, a dating firecracker who has also been unlucky in love, and her absentee father, appearing in brief paragraphs of hurt. Then there are the leading men in her life, and the relationships that failed for the usual cliché reasons. Her account of these, their familiarity, struck painfully home. I found myself nodding along with Chin in so many places that I wondered if one of us was adopted.
However, Chin’s memoir moves from this narrative, so like mine, to something less familiar. In her late 30s, with another failed relationship at her feet and troubling family issues at home, Chin was at a crossroads. Fed up with the dialogue in her head, she signed up for a walk in Central Park with a well-known naturalist, and on the tour began to recognize ingredients from her childhood meals. Finding in this walk a freedom from the anxiety and pressure other venues of her life held, Chin threw herself into foraging. At first it brought her rescue and solace, then, later, a powerful self-reliance.
It’s through foraging that the narrative thread is woven; and we are carried along through the seasons in the author’s search for wild edibles. Inside this framework we pivot in the author’s mind from past memories to present day. The memoir, Chin’s first full-length book, begins in an unnamed park in Brooklyn, with the author wandering alone. She’s looking for lambsquarters, which we learn are a “free-range weed that gardeners hate but food lovers consider a culinary and nutritional treasure.” In this first chapter, the pesky weed is discovered, but — she details — like love, its flavor is elusive. When she snaps off a leaf to taste it she reports: “It’s a zero on my tongue — with a tougher consistency than its young summertime form, and rather tasteless.”
Through scenes like these we encounter Chin’s voice in its most confident state: the science of finding and eating weeds. While her writing works well when it’s unraveling the uneasy threads of her personal relationships — with both family and lovers — she shines when reporting to the reader what she unearths from the base of a tree. The chapters of the book engage us in the specifics of what we can forage in New York State, such as field garlic, motherwort, morels, and wood sorrel. At the end of each chapter you’ll find recipes and instructions for how to cook with these weeds, what season to collect them, and, occasionally, you’ll learn where to seek them out. It’s easy to see why The New York Times hired her to write a column about foraging in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Reading Eating Wildly, I felt somewhat envious of the revolution in self that Chin describes. My more intimate relationship with Mother Nature began in fits and spurts. Los Angeles, an urban city better known for its smog than its becoming surroundings, never inspired me to furrow into its earth. I was far from outdoorsy, until my father moved for a spell to Ojai, a tiny dirt town 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Then came golden weekends: roaming loose on the property, scaling avocado trees, floating in the heavy stream that ran across our road in winter, and watching the back neighbor lift trays of bees out of their busy hive.
I hadn’t thought of my time in Ojai until halfway through Eating Wildly. (Isn’t that sort of remembering the best part of reading?) Chin is walking across the CUNY Staten Island campus where she teaches writing and finds herself in the middle of a swarm of bees. Tens of thousands of bees are encircling a tree. The bees need a new home, and Chin jumps in before an exterminator can be called. She calls a friend — someone from her foraging network, of course — a tree surgeon with a truck and bee suits. Truck guy has the wherewithal to know what to do with the buzzing mass. After they successfully transplant the bees to a new home, Chin’s passion leads her to research the difficulty bees have finding safe havens in our densely populated cities; what she learns helps her understand her own difficulties in love.
Throughout, the circumstances of gleaning for food where others see just weeds become a way for the author to intuit into her past. Memories of a conversation with her stepfather about books and the joys of reading translate to how we sometimes miss noticing the savory weeds growing underfoot. Anxiety when her grandmother is hospitalized takes her to the cupboard to make a cup of tea using Leonurus cardiaca, or motherwort. When she discovers rotting mulberries on a tree, and slowly realizes that she is days too late to savor them, she is devastated. As she walks away, she considers her mother’s failed marriage to her stepfather and, later, worries that her bad luck with timing, made evident with the berries, might lead her as well to romantic mistakes.
A quest for understanding brings Chin to the elemental basics of her identity. As she searches for hard-to-find greens to bake in a pie, so too she burrows down into her soul in a quiet investigation into her past. The three parallel paths of the memoir — foraging, family, and dating — make for a rich setup that only sometimes let me down.
In digging into her past, Chin is never boring: possibly too clinical at times, excelling at her job of reporting to such a degree that she misses showing us what we really came to see: the messy tangle of her life. There are areas where she spends too much time, and then glosses over others I would have loved to learn more about: specifically, not introducing us to Owen (spoiler alert), now her husband, when first they met. Instead, we hear mention of Owen as a second thought, six months after their first meeting. The omission is a shame, but it didn’t spoil the effect: knowing she had finally found the love she’d been searching for was enough to thrill me. The news felt sort of like a secret handshake among women: you, too, I felt her story told me, deserve to be blessed.
I’d never knowingly foraged, but I have taken fruit that was not mine: apples, of course; berries here and there on hikes; and persimmons from a decrepit tree in the deep of winter. But when I closed this book foraging was what I most wanted to do. Marrying it to my love of hiking, I figured these outdoor activities could be blended into one. I looked up the New York Mycological Society — they have a great logo — and I typed in “foraging” into the search box of Meetup. Chin’s book is closed on my desk; my fingers crossed; and I have the hope that doing something I’ve never done before will lead me to love, just like Ava Chin.
In the end, what’s most important, of course, is that the love she finds isn’t limited to romance. It’s global, and deep-rooted. “Foraging reminds me that the world is a generous place,” she writes. “Even when things are topsy-turvy, I know that the plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”