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Ava Chin has made an art and science out of urban foraging and lets her readers in on her secrets in her new memoir "Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal." Chin weaves a passionate tale of how searching for food in unexpected places parallels her more personal search for love and family connections.
Former Urban Forager columnist for "The New York Times" and a professor of creative nonfiction at City University of New York, Chin lives in Manhattan with her husband and daughter.
She will localize her foraging adventures on May 24 when she comes to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, which has teamed up with Bank Square Books to offer a culinary walk on the wild side. Maggie Jones, DPNC executive director and botanist, will join Chin on the walk.
In a recent interview the author talked about her new book and what it means to view her life through "foraging eyes."
Q. You are described as a master forager. How did you become an expert at foraging for food?
A. I was the kind of kid that was always bringing home wild food anyway. I had a childlike proclivity for it. I would find onion grass and bring it home. I'd fish off the coast of Brooklyn and Long Island and New Jersey. I started foraging in earnest as an adult when I went on nature walks - and went on foraging tours throughout New York City. I started doing that in 2008. I met other foragers from there who became my friends and they would take me out. After going on these walks with expert foragers, I started to go out on my own in my own neighborhood, looking for wild edibles. I found edible weeds are very tenacious and will grow wherever they can get a foothold: in small parks, large parks, abandoned parks, outside of dry cleaners and Laundromats.
I also bought a bunch of foraging guidebooks. I read up on foraging at night. I even got a handy app for my phone that helped me to forage! I really got hooked when I realized some of the ingredients my Chinese grandfather would cook with that I thought were only in Chinese supermarkets were growing all around us. One is a Cloud Ear mushroom that is used in stir-fries and hot and sour soup. It turns out the wild relative to that mushroom were growing in Staten Island and Brooklyn. I found them growing on a dying tree.
Q. Deborah Feldman says on the back cover of your book "The author forages through her past much in the same way she hunts for mushrooms, tenderly, with an almost worshipful respect for the delicate process of unearthing one's true self." Is that accurate?
A. I had an intuitive sense that foraging was a perfect metaphor for writing a memoir like this. When you're writing a book, and particularly a memoir, what are the memories that stand out for you? I think there was some way I was trying to follow the heart of my own personal story while I was working on it. I realized the reasons I became a forager were very personal, and, in a way, I was the perfect person to become a forager because I was always searching for things that were missing in my childhood, including clues of my father who had disappeared from my life when I was a kid. And I feel like that search for my father then translated into a kind of search for myself and a search for love that were intertwined.
Q. Why do you think urban foraging is becoming the new frontier of the food culture? People don't even have time to cook, it seems, let alone forage for the ingredients.
A. People are so busy. I don't expect readers to go out foraging for their meals - we're not going to replace agriculture with foraging. I think a large part is a lot of media attention on high-end chefs who are putting foraged items on their plates and in their menus. Some are noted foragers themselves, others are using foraged food and putting it on the menus. That's a trend in haute cuisine.
The other component, I think, is actually much larger, and is that the people I meet who are interested in foraging are the kinds of people who care about their food and are suspicious of our current industrialized food system. And with foraging you know exactly where your food comes from.
Q. About how much of your diet do you forage for?
A. It depends on the season. Right now we're in the middle of ramp season. So my family and I will eat ramps (wild early spring onions) in our dishes in next few weeks. I'd say about 30 percent of my diet is foraged in the spring and the fall.
Q. What kinds of things do you point out to people you take on foraging walks?
A. Whenever we encounter an edible plant, I show them the characteristics of the plant to help them identify it when they go foraging. Then I talk about culinary, and at times medicinal, history and uses of the plant, as well as the nutritional information. So many of the wild edible plants we find are higher in phytonutrients than the vegetables we can find in our current agriculture. That's because through the centuries, we've tended to breed for sweetness and flavor and inadvertently bred out a lot of those nutrients that were common to the plant. The bitter constituent in dandelion greens (for example) is an indication that it's high in antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Q. Have you ever gone foraging in Mystic? How do you know you will find anything and what you will find on the culinary walk at the Nature Center?
A. It's my first time foraging in Mystic. I'm really looking forward to it. The same weeds that grow in New York City are often growing throughout the tri-state area. I anticipate finding a lot of the same weeds I find in my own neighborhood. I also anticipate finding a lot more than that because the terrain we'll be walking through is a lot more varied.
I don't know exactly what we're going to find. I suspect we'll find an occasional mushroom along the way. Morels are what everyone wants to find but they're notoriously mysterious. They like a certain kind of environment. We'll keep our eyes out for them, but that would certainly be amazing. We'll definitely find dandelions, and lambsquarters (related to spinach), which is considered one of the most nutritious plants in the world. It's hard to find in supermarkets, but it's growing abundantly all around us. Wild food is growing abundantly around us. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.
AVA CHIN'S WILD MOREL LINGUINI
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon butter
2 small shallots, diced
8 ounces sliced, chopped morels
1 tablespoon cream sherry
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound cooked linguini
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Sauté the garlic in the butter over medium heat, then add the shallots; cook until garlic is slightly browned around the edges and shallots turn translucent.
Add the sliced, chopped morels and cook until they are a deep chocolatey color.
Drizzle in the cream sherry — my grandfather always favored Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and I follow in the tradition. Allow everything to simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, and finish the sauce off with a touch of heavy cream and salt and pepper to taste.
Add the linguini to the sauce; toss with tongs until the morel sauce has been evenly worked through the pasta. Drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil.
What: Foraging walk and booksigning reception with Ava Chin
When: Saturday, May 24, at 5 p.m. Books will be for sale at the reception.
Where: The Nature and Heritage Center
at Coogan Farm, 162 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic. After the booksigning, guests can either walk back to their cars at Coogan Farm (approximately half a
mile) or get a ride back by van.
Tickets: $40 for walk, reception and book or $15 for walk and reception for members; $45 for walk and book
and reception or $20 for walk and reception for nonmembers.
Info and registration: To register online, visit www.dpnc.org and click on Programs. To register by phone, call the Nature Center at (860) 536-1216.