by Terry Hong
Thanksgiving approach-eth! Don’t you want to know what will be on the Urban Forager’s table? Read on!
Ava Chin, author of recently published Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, chats about family, motherhood, writing, and the art of foraging—complete with blackberry-saturated toddlers and Chinese grandmother-types.
Terry Hong: Of course, the first question has to be … has your mother read the book? And …?
Ava Chin: Because I write about people whom I care about, most especially my mother, I had to approach them before the book came out. When Eating Wildly was still in pages, I sat my mother down and discussed all of the places in the narrative—in depth—in which she appeared. I didn’t want her to feel blind-sided, and if she really objected to anything there was still time to make changes. My mother is the only person, aside from my husband and daughter, by the way, for whom I would make changes in my writing. I was initially worried that she might object to being written about, but she was fine with it—in fact, our conversation sparked some reminiscing for her. Now that the book has come out, I think she may have more mixed feelings, but I think that’s natural when you’re part of someone else’s story and it’s not your perspective.
TH: How has becoming a mother to a daughter changed your relationship with your mother? How has your mother changed since becoming a grandmother?
AC: My becoming a mother to a beautiful daughter, whom I’m thoroughly ga-ga over (does that feeling ever go away? Don’t tell me if it does), just makes me feel more mystified over—not so much my mother—but my father’s conspicuous absence. How could you not be totally in love with your own child? I now see that the love that I had for the grandparents who helped raise me, which was vast and intense and all-encompassing, was nothing in comparison to how they felt about me. My relationship with own my mother has changed in the sense that I see her and hear from her more—she comes over because she wants to see her grandkid.
TH: Near the end of Eating Wildly, you see your father from a distance on a city street after a series of disappointments over missed meetings, and you decide then and there that you’re finally ready to stop chasing after him. You silently watch him walk away. Have you seen him since?
AC: I’m not in touch with my father, and haven’t seen him since I let him go.
TH: How do you think your grandparents might have reacted to the book?
AC: My grandparents were very conservative “don’t-air-the-dirty-laundry” types who probably would have been dismayed that I’d written a memoir about our family. But the book is mainly about how foraging and finding my own food helped me to heal from the wounds I was carrying from childhood, and how I learned self-sufficiency and self-acceptance through urban natures. I think, in a way, if they stepped back from the shock of my having written about them, they would ultimately have been proud.
TH: You’ve been involved with writing – learning about it (literature degrees galore), practicing it (lots of anthology, magazine, newspaper credits), teaching it (that’s Professor Chin!)—since you were in your teens (or earlier?). You edited an essay collection, Split Stories From a Generation Raised, which pubbed in 2002. But this is your first book that is all yours … so … to be blunt (and since this is Bloom), what took you so long?
AC: Ha! Good question. I’ve been a slam poet, a fiction writer, a performer, and a journalist, and while I have all manner of manuscripts scattered across my apartment and office—poetry, short stories, and even a novel—I’m very picky about what I want to get published, and what will ultimately represent me. This is probably a very bad strategy for a writing career, but there you go. Eating Wildly was the first manuscript that I thought I could really stand behind and feel good about well into my old age. It was a special thrill to learn recently that it made “Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014” in Memoir!
TH: You mentioned in Eating that your own writing initially featured complicated mother/daughter relationships, and missing fathers—variations on your own life, but fictionalized. Now that you’ve told your own true story, do you think you might begin to tell other stories? Perhaps we might expect a novel or short story collection to be hitting shelves in the near future?
AC: Actually, my creative writing in the beginning featured single mothers in difficult situations, plus daughters reconciling with missing fathers (I didn’t write about the complexities of mother/daughter relationships—I saved that for later).
I’m pretty busy at the moment guest-editing a food literary journal and writing personal essays (about foraging). While I’m not at liberty to say what the next book is going to be, I am always writing, and I do have some ideas in the works!
TH: You’re also a former slam poet? Any plans on returning to the stage?
AC: Not really, although I did write and perform my first slam poem about food, foraging and cultural identity—for a Change Food event back in May.
TH: So foraging … what advice would you give a first-time forager?
AC: First-time foragers should always go out with an expert who can show them true edibles vs. potentially poisonous lookalikes. Luckily, these days there are more and more of us leading foraging tours across the country, so we’re not hard to find. Plus, if you’re interested in learning more about mushrooms, there are local mycological societies (mushroom clubs!) that go on walks throughout the year in various seasons.
TH: Do you forage wherever you go? Any place(s) you might consider off limits? Any favorite foraging destinations?
AC: I love foraging on the college campus where I teach, as well as the city parks. I recently went bolete-hunting in Telluride, Colorado, and loved it. The Colorado porcini there are considered some of the best-tasting boletes in the world. Industrial and former-industrial areas are off-limits for foraging and are for identification-only purposes. I was once asked to give a foraging walk in industrial Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I said no on account of how polluted the area is.
TH: So you write, teach, chase a toddler, and have family and friends to enjoy. And you seem to cook from scratch, even! How to fit foraging into your schedule? Do you have a schedule of sorts? How often do you/can you go?
AC: I forage wherever I go. Sometimes, while I’m pushing our daughter in her stroller through our neighborhood in Manhattan or across the college campus where I teach on Staten Island, I will see edible mushrooms and plants. If I’m in a really good spot, like my college campus, I will sometimes use the bottom of her stroller as my special collection basket.
TH: Could you estimate how much of your meals are foraged?
AC: Only a small portion of our diet is foraged throughout the year, although in mushroom season (aka now) it’s much greater. Right now, I have over 10 lbs. of wild mushrooms in my refrigerator—so it’s mushroom pizza, mushroom linguini, and mushroom bruschetta most nights for us.
TH: Is foraging a family affair? I know from the book that hubby Owen is a mushroom hunter. Does he forage with you for other goodies? And your daughter Mei Rose? Has she been taught to recognize ramps and morels yet?
AC: Owen and I go mushroom hunting in the spring and fall together. We’ve taught Mei how to find wild edibles, including blackberries, which grow rampantly throughout rural England [where Owen is originally from]. The first time we taught her how to pick them, she loved them so much she didn’t want to leave the bush. Her fingers were purple with juice, despite the thorns, which she managed to avoid like a pro.
TH: Are you still writing your New York Times column? When (and where else) should readers look for your pieces?
TH: Locally sourced. Micro and urban farms. Freeganism. Maybe even dumpster-diving (Americans surely seem to have some of the most wasteful, toothsome garbage). Foraging has certainly joined such foodie catch-phrases. Just how popular is foraging today? Where are some of the hot spots?
AC: Foraging has definitely increased in popularity over the course of the last five to eight years. More people are leading foraging tours around the country. Our local NYC mycological society has seen the number of members go up, particularly due to the increased media attention from high-end chefs who are providing more wild foods on their menus.
As for hot spots—I’m not really sure. I can say that some people forage commercially, especially for mushrooms. The Pacific Northwest, for example, is known for mushroom hunting. But, in general, I think foraging is still a bit of an underground activity. It’s also very seasonal.
TH: One of the chapters in your book, “13: The Yellow Morel,” deals with the sustainability of foraging – something along the lines of, ‘If everyone is out there foraging, eventually nothing will be left.’ That’s an argument you consider unlikely. What do you think the future of foraging will be, especially in dense urban areas like NYC?
AC: New York City actually has a very long history of foraging that was lost when the Native Americans got pushed off the land. Most of that foraging culture disappeared with the Native populations. Foraging didn’t come up again in the American consciousness until Euell Gibbons wrote Stalking the Wild Asparagus in the early 1960s. A brief resurgence happened, but foraging went underground again in NYC until the 1980s when naturalist Steve Brill began leading foraging tours around the city. He was initially arrested and fined by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, but the city soon dropped the case, and actually hired him to do foraging walks through Central Park!
The National Park Service allows for foraging for personal consumption, with limits on the amounts that can be taken; it is up to the individual parks to determine how they want to follow this. Here, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation doesn’t want you to forage through their city parks. Taking plants is discouraged, but people still forage. Interestingly, some of the popular foods that foragers consider food, the Parks Department considers weeds that they need to get rid of. Certain crops are highly abundant and aren’t in any danger of getting over-picked. Right now ginkgoes and acorns are fruiting all over the city, and you’ll see many Chinese grandmother-types gathering the former to use for food. I don’t think there have been any issues there; with ginkgoes or acorns, there’s no danger of overharvesting. Of course, with all plants, we want to make sure to forage sustainably: take only a small percentage so the plant can continue to grow throughout rest of the season.
As for the future of foraging in dense areas, even though people are more aware that they can forage for food, many still react with comments like, “I would never do that myself,” “I won’t know what’s poisonous,” “Isn’t that so dirty?” and the like. Frankly, I don’t think foraging is ever going to be a widespread practice in urban areas, especially when it’s so much easier just to order in or go to a restaurant.
TH: Since this is Turkey Week … what are you most thankful for?
AC: I’m most thankful for my family, but also for the abundance that appears in the natural world. There are so many lessons that I learned about love, timing, and reconciliation—lessons that even my own parents weren’t able to teach, which I could only learn through Nature.
TH: And in addition to gratitude, what will be on your Turkey Table?
AC: Aside from a traditional spread, I will be making a wild mushroom risotto with maitake and ‘chicken of the woods’-mushrooms which I plucked with my own hands.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Click here to read Terry Hong’s feature piece on Ava Chin.