by Terry Hong
These days, Ava Chin is living her happy beginnings: she’s the mother to an energetic toddler, wife to the man of her dreams, professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at her undergrad alma mater, and—whenever she has time—an in-demand urban forager of wild garlic, shamrocks, mulberries, and even the elusive morel. Most recently, her new book, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, just made Library Journal’s “Best Books of 2014” in Memoirs. Those ‘Best of’-compilations are just starting, so remember the title . . . you’re sure to see it again and again on lists to come.
Eating Wildly is Chin’s journey to ‘happy’: as with most fairy tales, mixed in with the good parts are many difficulties to be endured, obstacles to be vanquished, losses to overcome. Chin’s story begins even before she was born—when her father left her pregnant mother, never to return. Her parents’ marriage was brief—they never lived together—although her father walked the aisle (thus far, anyway) five times, twice to the same woman; her mother was number two. As the deserted single parent, Chin’s mother hung on to her anger and resentment for decades. Thankfully, Chin had the grounding of her maternal grandparents, who nurtured, loved, and fed her belly and soul. Yet without a nuclear family—especially lacking an example of a loving partnership which she could emulate—the adult Chin suffered through one broken relationship after another. Fast approaching 40, Chin went searching for nourishment elsewhere—literally. She signed up for a casual NYC Central Park tour with renowned naturalist Steve Brill; the tour introduced to her the art of foraging for edible plants in public places, an experience that taught her to look around her with new eyes . . . and actually led her on the path to physical and emotional fulfillment. And that’s the delicious, toothsome story of this memoir-with-recipes.
Born in Queens, Chin was the only child of an only daughter. Her mother—a former Miss Chinatown—was emotionally distant, absent more often than not during Chin’s childhood. Her fondest memories recall her mother’s parents: “While Grandpa expanded the ever-widening reaches of my palate with culinary delights, it was Grandma who gave me lessons on life.” Grandpa, “a former Toisanese village boy” who cooked in various Chinese restaurants throughout New York City, and Grandma, “the smarty-pants of her family” who was her school salutatorian and first woman in the family to attend college, were Chin’s stalwart, stable support.
Small arguments aside, she severely tested the relationship just once—when, in her mid-20s, she went searching for her father. When she finally found him—still living in New York City—their reunion was not the emotional release that Chin had hoped for; her attempts to engage him in an ongoing relationship were rife with repeated disappointments. Most surprisingly, she wasn’t prepared for the vehemence of her grandparents’ fury and even temporary banishment: “All we did for you! This is how we repay us?” her grandmother shouted, but far more frightening was Grandpa, who was by then dying of cancer, and who, feeling especially abandoned and betrayed, went utterly silent. Chin tried desperately to make him understand: “It was because of you . . . You’ve always been a father to me, and now we’re losing you . . . I want to be a parent one day—like you and Grandma. But how can I be a good parent if I don’t even know or understand what went on between my own?” When the silence became unbearable, Chin’s elusive mother surprised everyone and stepped in to reconnect her parents with her daughter.
Marked by what Chin perceived to be abandonment again and again, she remained single for decades. By her late 30s, she could boast of many, many accomplishments: multiple degrees, community activism, a lauded column, “Urban Forager,” for the New York Times, celebrated slam poetry and short stories, an essay collection she edited about divorced families, teaching in the classroom and in the wilds. Living solo definitely wasn’t on her list of goals. And yet, at 39, once more, the man she thought she might marry, proved he wasn’t Mr. Right; after years of excuses, Chin realized she deserved better than just settling for someone less.
Her grandparents had both passed away, her father was once again out of her life, her mother remained emotionally unavailable, and her partner prospects were indefinitely on hold; Chin was left spinning. Eventually, she learned to reexamine her life through “foraging eyes.” The same concentrated sight with which she found oyster mushrooms and lambs quarters and mugwort became the key to approaching her own life:
In the seasons that I’ve spent searching for wild edibles, taking long walks as solace after a breakup, or searching for fruit-bearing trees after the death of a loved one, 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. . . . [i]t’s the unexpected bounty and regenerative powers of nature that have deepened my connection with my hometown, my family, and even myself, transforming old feelings of being ‘not good enough’ or ‘unworthy’ into new ways of seeing and being.
Mushrooms would eventually, finally lead Chin to Mr. Right, whom she met—fittingly—at a friend’s party for Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. The connection was nearly instant, encouraged by a walk home, then a dinner date. But what solidified the burgeoning relationship was indeed those elusive fungi: when Chin invited her new man to an upcoming mushroom hunt, his reaction was . . . well . . . exactly right. His excitement told Chin that this one was different, this one was what her foraging eyes had been patiently waiting for all along.
Presented over a year’s worth of seasons, Eating Wildly is, on the surface, a detailed guidebook on how and when to forage and for what. Dovetailed into Chin’s urban foodie adventures are the stories that make up her life. After a full cycle of fall, winter, spring, summer, and once again fall, what Chin finds—and the lucky reader, too—is the surprising abundance she thought was missing:
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.
The annual season of gratitude commences this week: try this toothsome advice—“foraging for life, love and the perfect meal” should get you off to just the right start.
Terry Hong’s previous features: Ellen Oh’s Prophecy Trilogy and Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Pauline A. Chen and The Red Chamber: “To finish the story for myself…”, Don Lee’s Pure Stories, Kim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader, Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son, Nina Schuyler: “Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day”, “To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, “You Won’t Believe What Happened!”: A.X. Ahmad’s Ranjit Singh Mysteries