Nature and nurture intertwine enticingly in Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a bittersweet and sensory-rich memoir by urban forager Ava Chin.
Throughout much of her life, Chin struggled with feelings of abandonment. Her father, whom she didn’t meet until she was 26 years old, had left when her mother became pregnant with her. And her mother, a former “Miss Chinatown,” was beautiful but remote, focused more on her endless list of suitors than on her attention-starved daughter.
Chin was often lonely and frightened. Had it not been for her doting grandparents, with whom she spent a great deal of time, she may never have found the love and guidance she needed to thrive.
Her grandparents’ home was filled with comfort and good food. She credits her grandfather, a restaurant worker, with developing her palate for unusual and exotic foods. Her grandmother was everything Chin yearned for from her mother: loving, supportive, proud of her.
Nonetheless, Chin had to entertain herself much of the time. She found solace in scuttling about in the dirt outside her mother’s Queens apartment building, digging for treasures in the cracks between the concrete. As an adult, she discovered the pleasure of tromping through uncultivated open areas in New York’s five boroughs, searching for edible plants and weeds.
In this quest, she developed a deep appreciation of the bounty of nature and the beauty in the improbable. Her prose is embellished with reverence for all that grows.
Any book with recipes in it gets brownie points from me, and each chapter in Eating Wildly concludes with a recipe that Chin has created using foraged ingredients such as lambs quarters, mulberries and wild honey. They sound mouthwatering, even her variation on Grass Pie. Chin’s prize winning recipe for Wild Oyster Mushroom, Fig, and Goat Cheese Tart with Caramelized Onions is one that is definitely going to appear on my dinner table soon.
Chin realized through foraging that life’s timetable is not always something we can control. “I’ve learned that nature has a way of revealing things in its own time, providing discoveries along the way – from morel mushrooms bursting through the soil to a swarm of on-the-move bees scouting out a new home,” she writes.
She rapturously describes plants that until now were unfamiliar to me. Wood sorrel, for instance. “It has folded, heart-shaped leaves, which flutter open and closed depending on the time of day, rather like slow-moving butterflies … taking a bite was a birth and lemony relief.”
And mulberries: “The ripest berry – a dark one hanging on a short stem that resembled a comma … resembling a cluster of deeply colored prunes, about the size of a cocoon.” Asiatic dayflower: “… with an edible blossom so transient that it could be a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.”
An Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction and Journalism at City University of New York, Chin’s affinity for nature is perhaps only exceeded by her fluidity with language. Her beautiful words captivated me.
I was curious to see what the plants she referenced looked like, and she has posted lovely photos of them on The Plants (and Mushrooms) of Eating Wildly.