A Review of EATING WILDLY: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal by Ava Chin, Simon & Schuster
I have only one reservation (not at a restaurant!) about this utterly absorbing, charming and instructive book -- and that is its title, Eating Wildly. "Wildly" is an adverb (alas) meaning this title could mean "pigging out," which it clearly does not. This book addresses the undiscovered alternatives to eating mindlessly in our fad-driven culinary and dietary culture. It is about seeking out food (foraging for edible wild plants and fungi, berries and seeds in urban areas) as well as eating with discrimination and awareness. (Eating without discrimination could lead to a brush with poison, so foraging has to be carefully taught.)
This book, by former New York Times "Urban Forager" columnist Ava Chin is a tonic riposte to the tiresome, self-promoting public relations "puff" of celebrity chefs, critics and fetish-foodies. A combination of Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus and a nonfiction memoir-ish version of Nora Ephron's Heartburn (life lessons with recipes included), it unfolds in a plucky, self-assured prose style, offering a step-by-step guide to potential urban foraging sites, along off familiar paths in public parks, backyards, between buildings. Where wild yellow morels, field garlic, wood sorel micro greens, blackberries and mulberries proliferate (even in the shadow of skyscrapers and housing project towers) -- Ava Chin demonstrates how to gather in the often-ignored "plenty" of the earth.
She also gathers her readers into a reduced-stock version of her life story: daughter of a single mother in New York City, obsessed with her absent father (raised, in part, by her maternal grandparents, who are lovingly depicted here), smart and independent, a successful undergraduate and doctoral student in creative writing and literature, she becomes a natural seeker (forager) for the perfect meal -- and the perfection of wild and unpredictable romantic love. Readers identify with her indefatigable quality from the first chapter, along with her healthy reverence for what this, our earth, provides.
"I closed my eyes, thankful for what was there beneath our feet. I thanked the earth for producing tiny tart plants, thriving weeds, and woody medicinal mushrooms that steadfastly grew around pokey blades of grass. When my grandfather was alive he had taught me how to eat -- dong gu, winter melon, po nay, dong quai. This was good for digestion, that was good for after giving birth. It was information to last an entire lifetime."
This book is divided into sections named for seasons, as Ava Chin adjusts her narrative to the turning of the earth. Her beloved grandparents pass away, she reconciles with her mother (and tries to reconcile with her father) -- she extends herself, like a plant, tropically, toward light, toward a lasting relationship. Miraculously, (as in the small miracles of earth) she is rewarded in her search.
This is the kind of book I love: a "living" book -- a book (like a primer, cookbook, book of hours or a field guide) which teaches something (a craft, a discipline) along with its poetic beauties.
And the lucky (attentive) reader can learn how to make "Wild Morel Linguini" -- an extra bonus for paying attention!