Ava Chin is known to New Yorkers as the Urban Forager, a blog she writes for The New York Times about scouring city parks and backyards for delectable edibles served up wild by nature. But while hunting and gathering around the mean streets of America's largest city has become all the rage for back-to-the-source hipsters, Chin, a fifth-generation Chinese-American, learned the art of harvesting morels and mulberries in nature from a less-than-trendy source: her Toisanese grandparents, who raised her after her father abandoned her and her mother. Foraging, says Chin, showed her that she could find her way through her painful past, and go on to self-reliance and a great love that shows in her memoir, Eating Wildly. She talked to Alison Singh Gee about how foraging changed her life.
How did you first get into foraging?
I was a scrappy city kid, and the first wild edible I ever foraged was field garlic, or "wild garlic", from the back courtyard of our apartment building in New York City. It smelled exactly like the scallions my grandfather used to cook with. There was something about finding food picked by my own hands that was powerful and inspiring.
What part of searching the forest and fields for food comes from your Toisanese heritage - and how does it connect you to your Chinese past?
My grandfather was an amazing gourmand and cook. I used to follow him through the aisles of Chinese supermarkets in Flushing, Queens, and he taught me about medicinal roots, and teas and mushrooms. Long after he'd passed away, I discovered a wild relative of the cloud ear mushrooms he cooked with. It reminded me of him and made me feel like I was home again.
How did you first start writing about foraging for ?
I first started writing about foraging in early 2009 for a small online section of the Times that covered two neighbourhoods in Brooklyn. These areas were dense and urban, and I worried I wouldn't find anything growing there. But I discovered so many wonderful edibles growing in tree pits, abandoned lots, and even through cracks in the sidewalks. Little by little, the column became popular and readers began to invite me into their backyards to help identify the edible plants growing there.
Describe a typical day of foraging.
It's usually a solitary practice. I prefer to set out alone or sometimes with my daughter, a toddler, whose stroller has a nice basket to keep edibles in. I always bring plastic bags and, depending on the time of year, a few paper ones for mushrooms, which need air circulation.
How do New Yorkers respond to your searching for food in their urban parks and doorsteps?
Some people have welcomed me into their backyards to tap their maple trees or to see whatever's growing wild there. Others worry I might be harming the environment. I always tell them that most foragers care about the land … as these are the precious areas where we obtain our food.
Have you ever misidentified a plant?
The closest I've ever come to poisoning myself was one summer when I was gathering young sprigs of amaranth on Staten Island. I picked a stalk that gave off a peculiar odour - rather like tahini. I knew right away that it was a hallucinogenic plant called jimsonweed. Nearly every year I read about someone who is poisoned by jimsonweed because he or she has confused it with some other green.
Why do you think foraging has become more popular in assertively urban areas in recent years?
Mainly because of the media attention paid to high-end chefs who forage or use wild ingredients. A growing awareness of our industrialised food system is also a factor. Many foragers enjoy being connected to the land and knowing where their food is coming from.
If we were to forage in Hong Kong and China, what would you go in search of? What would you make with it?
I'm most excited about the seafood in Hong Kong. My father's side of the family were big anglers in Toisan and the US, so it's in our blood.
Was there anything you were afraid to reveal in your memoir?
The hardest things to reveal were my vulnerable weak spots, including where I was making mistakes in my romantic life. My earliest readers kept saying they couldn't get a read on what I felt at those moments, so I knew that I wasn't giving enough and trying to rush ahead because it was too painful.
Throughout your foraging tale, you search for a partner in life. How are the two acts related?
When I forage, I maintain a sense of present non-attachment - I'm looking for edibles but not with any one fixed thing in mind. That mindset helped me while I was dating my husband to not rush into anything too quickly.