After writing a column about foraging in The New York Times for several years, Ava Chin wrote Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal. Part introduction to foraging, part memoir, the book describes the role that finding food in unexpected places has played in her life. We spoke with her about foraging, the leap from a column to a book, and her work as a professor of creative nonfiction.
Before writing your book, you wrote columns about foraging for several years. What was it like to take the well-trodden subject matter of your column and turn it into a book-length project?
It was a real pleasure to write the personal story behind the Urban Forager column, which I kept for the New York Times from 2009 to 2013. I kept finding myself wanting to write more personally about the pleasures of foraging and how it impacted my life, and I had reached the point where the short form was beginning to feel too constraining.
On one level, your book is a guide to foraging, but it’s also a memoir about the way foraging has sustained you throughout personal struggles. How did you decide to combine the two forms?
The number one question I receive after telling someone about my foraging forays is, “How did you start doing that?” and then quickly followed by, “And why?” The answers are too personal and complex for polite conversation, and that’s when I realized that I had a book on my hands.
In a way, I’ve always been a forager—from the first time I pulled up field garlic from our back courtyard to following my grandfather through the dusty aisles of Chinese supermarkets. That, plus the fact that I was estranged from my father at a young age, and constantly searching for clues of him, sparked a kind of early hunter’s instinct in me. I’m afraid that it’s an intrinsic part of my personality.
So how did you start foraging?
As a city kid, I never had access to a garden and I was always rummaging around the back courtyard finding treasures of field garlic (Allium vineale), a.k.a. wild garlic or onion grass. Being able to feed myself back then was empowering, and I discovered that I enjoyed gathering my food directly from the source.
I didn’t start foraging as an adult, though, until I’d reached a moment of crisis—my grandmother who helped raise me was reaching the end of her life, and I was still in the throes of trying to gain tenure at my job—and I needed something to sustain me. I went on a tour with a city naturalist, and at my first bite of lemony wood sorrel I got hooked.
Do you think more people are foraging now? If so, does that make it harder to forage sustainably in places like Central Park and Prospect Park?
I think there’s a much greater awareness of foraging now versus even five years ago, and probably yes, more folks are foraging these days. But many of the wild edibles are plants that the parks department is trying to weed out anyway, and they are tenacious growers. That said, it’s always important to forage sustainably because you want your edibles to come back year after year into perpetuity.
How do you teach your students how to write creative nonfiction?
My courses combine sections devoted to memoir and narrative nonfiction, and the short answer is that I teach them with verve and gusto! There’s so much vying for students’ attention these days that it’s important to engage them from the start. And while I get young writers out of their seats and writing about what they see in the world, I also have them go over each other’s work the old-fashioned way: on paper, with ink, meeting in person to discuss it. Even in this digital age, I still think writing is very tactile.
Interview by Molly Long