Into the Urban Wild
New memoir by Ava Chin explores city foraging
Upper East Side About five years ago, Upper East Side resident and urban forager Ava Chin took a British man named Owen mushroom hunting on a second date.
When they married in Chinatown this past September, they drank tea made from linden flowers she found on the Upper East Side during their traditional ceremony.
"To understand and know a plant, you have to see it from all its different stages," said Chin. "From what it looks like when it's a little sprout in the spring, to how it matures throughout the summer, and then the fall to when it dies back down in the winter again?To really be able to see a person who was going to be a potential partner, I had to be able to see that person through all those different stages."
Chin's new memoir, "Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal," explores her own life in a similar cycle, starting in Flushing, Queens, where she grew up with a single mother and under the watchful eyes of her grandparents, who taught her about food and traditional Chinese ingredients. Chin pairs stories about her tenuous relationship with her father, whom she met for the first time in her late twenties, and her grandmother's declining health with her tales of hunts for wild plants in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and edible mushrooms in Prospect Park.
"I was always searching for something, even as a child, I had this natural proclivity toward the quest," said Chin, 44, whose first foraging success came when she accidentally pulled up field garlic in the courtyard of her Queens apartment building as a young girl. "A large part of my childhood was spent looking for clues of my father, wondering who he was. There was something about foraging, even as a kid, where I could actually find something that would sustain me; that I could eat; that I could capture."
As a child, Chin spent weekends in her Chinese grandparents' home, taking in the aroma of her grandfather's homemade Lobster Cantonese with scallions, and corn soup with pork and onions, but she didn't seriously forage the city until her thirties. She read guidebooks and toured the city with foraging experts, which opened her up to a network of foragers, and met biologists who helped her distinguish poisonous mushrooms from those that were edible. She bought her first iPhone in order to download iPlant, a reference app for wild North American plants.
Chin has foraged in city parks for plants like field garlic, which she likens to an "old friend," and lambsquarters, a weed related to spinach and quinoa which tastes like "spinach turned up to 11," but has also found edible plants in playgrounds and abandoned lots. She discovered violets growing in the parking lot of a Laundromat in Fort Greene and edible amaranth plants outside the Greek Consulate on the Upper East Side.
"We tend to think of New York as being this concrete jungle," she said. "But I think that's a very limited viewpoint. As an urban forager, I'm most interested in seeing the ways in which edible weeds rub up against the structures of the city."
When she tells people she's a forager, she's most frequently met with skepticism or confused curiosity by those who assume she rifles through dumpsters and eats road kill, though she's selective about what she takes home. She doesn't forage on the street except to keep her identification skills sharp, and looks for edible plants on hills and elevated areas, away from street pollution.
Chin, who went to Queens College and has lived in every borough except the Bronx, teaches memoir writing and journalism at the College of Staten Island, and until recently wrote an urban foraging column for the New York Times' City Room blog. In addition to leading foraging tours (her next tour is on Thursday, May 15 in Fort Greene Park), she also teaches her two-year-old daughter May to forage, much like her grandfather taught her about cloud ear mushrooms and the medicinal uses of different teas. On a recent trip to England to visit Owen's family, May pointed out garlic mustard before Chin spotted the plant. When walking in the city, Chin stores her foraged food in May's stroller.
"When you become a parent, you can become very conservative and overprotective of your kids," Chin said. "Sometimes, as a parent you're always saying, 'don't eat that! Don't put that in your mouth!' But sometimes I say, 'well, actually, she can eat that.'"
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