Foraging becomes an unlikely salve for heartbreak in Ava Chin’s memoir Eating Wildly, published in May from Simon & Schuster. Adrift after a breakup and the illness of her beloved grandmother, the author retreats into the parks of New York, looking for a connection with her past and hoping to secure a writing job for an online section of The New York Times.
In her ramblings, Chin indeed finds solace. “Foraging had a way of doing that – distracting me from the fact that I was single and in my late thirties, and, thanks to my grandmother’s nagging reminders, the distinct feeling that I was running out of time.”
As a child, Chin learned about food from her grandfather, who was born in China and worked in Chinese restaurants after coming to the U.S. He loved to cook: “Sometimes it was a whole fish from head to tail – first steamed, then drizzled with a piping-hot medley of ginger, scallions, garlic, and sesame oil.”
Her grandfather’s diverse and adventurous taste rubbed off on Chin, who became a child foodie. “By four years old, I was already cracking open crabs with a nutcracker and devouring lobsters from claw to tail. Even the legs, those tiny crawlers that are often tossed aside for being too slim pickings, revealed a sweet juice as I gnawed on them like teething rings.”
Well-prepped for a life of curiosity by her grandparents, Chin finds herself open to the idea of edible plants found in nature, rooting out wild scallions as a child and sneaking away to eat them. This spirit of discovery comes much to the dismay of her mother, who often finds herself yelling at the child to put down seemingly inedible foods.
Another early experience that set Chin on the road toward foraging was shopping with her grandfather at the Chinese supermarket. Exotic mushrooms, like cloud ear, a favorite of his, could be found hidden in the back, next to jars of medicinal teas and plants, like chrysanthemum blossoms for headaches and red hawthorn berries for the heart. Chin learned early on the connection between unusual plants and nutrition.
As Chin’s confidence in her foraging abilities grows, she begins to increase the number of her journeys. “I forage for myself nearly every week, even in wintertime when the landscape is icy and to an untrained eye it appears that nothing is growing.” Her ability to spot an edible plant becomes sharper with practice.
As the urban bounty increases, Chin begins to forge recipes to accommodate them. From using field garlic (“beware of poisonous lookalikes such as star-of-Bethlehem and fly poison”) to flavor homemade hummus to perfecting a wild greens pie, Chin begins to throw parties, feeding others with her discoveries.
Maybe the most important lesson the author learns from her newfound passion is a certain amount of perspective about her life, in contrast to the natural world. “Foraging reminds me that the world is a generous place. Even when things are topsy-turvy, I know that the plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”
In Eating Wildly, Chin’s love for the hunt is infectious. Whether you already have an interest in foraging or prefer the comforts of being an armchair forager, this slim book provides examples and encouragement to think differently about edible things — and may even make you look at your own backyard or sidewalk weeds differently.
Lambsquarters Ricotta Pie
From: Adapted from the wild green pie recipe in Ava Chin's Eating Wildly.
Pie pastry, enough for base and latticework topping
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
3 cups of lambsquarters
1 cup of spinach, Swiss chard, or store-bought dandelions, roughly chopped
1 cup mustard greens, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
15-ounce container ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano (can substitute Parmesan)
½ grated fontina cheese (or any other good melting cheese you prefer)
½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
3 large eggs, beaten
1 egg white, optional
1 teaspoon water, optional
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Press the pastry into a 10-inch diameter springform pan. Build the pastry up the wall of the pan at least 1½ inches tall.
2. In a pan over medium flame, heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Add the garlic until lightly browned (3 minutes), and sauté the onions about another 3 minutes. Heat the remaining teaspoon of oil, then mix in the wild and store-bought greens, salt, and pepper. Sauté until all liquid from the greens evaporates, about 3 minutes.
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3. Combine the ricotta, romano, fontina, mozzarella, and eggs in a large bowl. Add the wild greens mixture, blending well.
4. Spoon the filling into the pastry-covered pan. Cut the remaining pastry into thin strips and weave into a latticework topping; place over pie, trimming edges. Mix the egg white with water and brush over pastry, if using. Bake until the filling is set in center and browning on top, approximately 40 minutes.