As a native of Queens, New York, the first time I heard the phrase “urban foraging,” I pictured dandelions peeking out from a parking meter, subject to truck exhaust and the whimsy of dogs, winding up on someone’s dinner plate. In other words, Fuhggedaboutit!
But you won’t find Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, diving for what’s described either. “I don’t eat every single plant that I see walking along the streets of New York. I’m actually very selective. I don’t eat anything that is near traffic in general. I try to eat plants and mushrooms that are of a slightly higher elevation,” says Chin, who writes the popular “Urban Forager” column for The New York Times. That is, when it comes to sourcing wild edibles in city limits, think Prospect Park, not parking meters.
“I bypass patches of violets with their heart-shaped leaves, so pretty in spring salads, and the insistent stalks of Asiatic dayflowers, with an azure blossom that rivals the blueness of the sky, and which is as transient as your last thought,” she writes. You can barely believe it’s Brooklyn, but Chin has a talent for describing natural beauty amidst concrete and cacophony. Eating Wildly is packed with pleasant surprises, from recipes for wild greens pie and mulberry-balsamic jam to the author’s personal revelations.
Chin credits many teachers with enabling her to forge ahead with foraging. First was her Taishan-born grandfather, who taught her about herbs and mushrooms on expeditions to the sprawling groceries of Flushing Chinatown. (Chin was born and raised in Queens.) She participated in organized expeditions led by experienced guides and read books including Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus before striking out on her own.
“The reaction I get the most when they learn I’m a forager is, ‘Oh, the guy from that book Into the Wild—didn’t he die from eating something poisonous? How do you know you’re not going to eat something poisonous?’ ” says Chin, who acknowledges that there are some risks involved, but emphasizes education and experience as highly mitigable. “I think we’re born with this innate curiosity that gets schooled out of us at a certain point but I would say that if you can recognize a dandelion blossom or shoot, a basil rosette, that’s the start. Then you can start to recognize other plants.”
While Chin can make a meal out of edible pursuits, Eating Wildly is shaped by her search for emotional fulfillment. Approaching 40 and still single, she’s forced to take a hard look at the early heartbreaks—an absent father, a selfish mother—that keep her searching for love on barren soil. “When I look back on it I was making a lot of the same mistakes, dating the same kind of person who wasn’t really interested in making a long-term commitment, and once I started to really engage in foraging I began to let some of my expectations go. Foraging really helped me a lot,” says Chin. It’s a multivalent analogue: “All that time growing up in Flushing, my mother and I acted as if our resources were scarce—there was never enough time or love or money to go around to sustain us. But, in truth, there was plenty all around. We just didn’t know where to look,” she writes.
To find love, Chin realizes she needs an open mind and open heart. To pursue without expectations and to be delighted by what you find holds for roughage as well as romance. “I recommend trying to keep your vision open so that you’re not actually looking for one specific thing. I found that when I go out foraging, and I’m looking for a certain plant, I often find myself disappointed. There’s a timing for everything, and if weather conditions aren’t right, if you’re looking for something in the wrong time of year or the wrong place, you might not find it. It’s what we do discover that’s most interesting,” says Chin.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.