November 3, 2014
Because of Ava Chin, I now photograph weeds and mushrooms that pop up after a rain. Her memoir, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, has inspired me to ask, before I put on gardening gloves and tear something out by its roots, “But can I eat this?”
As the The New York Times’ former “Urban Forager” columnist, Chin has been writing enthusiastically about her hunts for wild edibles for years, and Eating Wildly rounds up those tales and weaves them with personal stories. While we scan meadows and roadsides and trees with her to find her bounties, she tells us about her childhood in Queens, her challenging single mother, her devoted Chinese grandparents, and her plight as a single, 30-something woman for whom it’s much more difficult to uncover a loving partner than, say, prized morel mushrooms.
Her foraging adventures take us to most of New York’s boroughs as she digs up delectables in Staten Island, Ditmas Park, Fort Greene, and Flushing. While reading her book, I felt that Chin was by my side, a girlfriend and guide who pondered the latest, complicated compliment from her beauty queen mother, or who kvetched about the latest disappointing boyfriend—all while unearthing lambsquarters and frying them up in a pan.
The built world, even one as developed as New York, is rife with natural treasures, some of them half-buried and some in plain sight—this is Chin’s main message, I think. She chews on field garlic pulled right out of the ground, scouts precious oyster and reishi mushrooms, and finds a mulberry tree near the hospital where her grandmother is dying. From foraged motherwort, she makes a tea that helps to calm her when her life feels like it’s sagging under the weight of her grandmother’s illness.
Waxing about wood sorrel, she says, “It has folded, heart-shaped leaves, which flutter open and closed depending on the time of day, rather like slow-moving butterflies.” And she’s brave enough to tell us about a terrifying moment when she wonders if she’s poisoned dinner guests with something that she thought was garlic mustard, but might not be. (The young leaves look very different from the leaves of the older plants.) One of the final stories in the book is about almost literally stumbling onto a swarm of honeybees in Staten Island and helping them find a new home—her stand against colony collapse disorder, 30,000 bees strong.
Chin’s quests involve focused searches for “weeds,” which are, after all, just plants out of place. A novice forager might believe that the bounties shoot through the earth at random—but Chin’s book makes the subtle point that while some plants and fungi may look like weeds, they are never accidental. They are the products of the precise and logical natural world. She links her life’s weeds with family, love, longing, regret, wonder, and grief, all of them woven together so finely it’s as if they were never separate.
And she has helpful photos on her website, which I’ll be using to make sure I don’t confuse the black nightshade in my yard with the garlic mustard that I’m hoping to harvest one day. The book is available for purchase from at least eight booksellers on her website, and, of course, you can borrow it from your local lending library.