In ‘Eating Wildly,’ Ava Chin learns life lessons through foraging

Memoirist and cook learns to see only what’s in front of her

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by Ava Chin | Simon & Schuster | 256 pages

Early in Ava Chin’s memoir, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, one gets the feeling that cycles-of-life metaphors (cue strains of “To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn …”) could get old quickly. You’d be forgiven for asking yourself, at this stage, if Chin is trying too hard to tie together two distinct topics – the legacies of family dysfunction and her hobby of foraging for wild edibles – with the fairly predictable “spring-summer-fall-winter” organizational scheme.

Will she be able to pull this off?

The question is compounded as the reader learns that, as far as memoirists’ families go, Chin’s was pretty vanilla – so normal, in fact, that one may question why she’s writing a memoir at all. If bestseller lists are any indication, we love more dramatic, less quiet tales of lives run slightly – or (let’s be honest) seriously, devastatingly – off-track. Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? … now there are some writers who had truly terrible parents. But Chin’s mother, as self-centered as she was, never went fully off the rails, and Chin enjoyed consistent, compassionate love from her grandparents. Yes, her dad disappeared from her life when her mother was pregnant with her, and he’s emotionally unable or unwilling (or both) to establish a meaningful relationship with her when she finds him as an adult, but Chin is able to meet him, assess the possibility of having him in her life and, as a result of her own maturity, let him go when she realizes he’s just not capable of being who she needs and wants him to be.

And this is when the reader begins to realize there was never reason to worry about Chin’s ability to pull the seemingly disparate elements of her life into a cohesive narrative: It’s because of foraging that Chin is able to let her father walk past her on the street without chasing him down and demanding he notice her and love her and draw her into his life. For Chin – and, by extension, for the reader – the lessons learned through foraging have the kind of philosophical power usually reserved for more spiritual pastimes, like meditation.

Many of those lessons, which Chin picks up as she tromps through New York City’s parks looking for field greens, mulberries and mushrooms, aren’t beyond the reader’s grasp. In fact, they are mostly obvious and entirely relatable, which is what makes her story so engaging. They are the life lessons most of us know in our bones, but which we, stubborn creatures we are, have to learn over and over again: We are all interdependent. Rigid expectations set us up for disappointment. Disappointment, a familiar companion in life, is one that is also temporary. Persistence and patience require more than casual commitment if we want to reap rewards, whether with a project or another person. Allowing others to be who they are rather than who we want them to be is much healthier for everyone.

And then there’s the lesson that is Chin’s holy grail. It’s the one she learns while on a desperate, city-wide search for mulberries so she can file her New York Times “Urban Forager” column by deadline (as it turns out, a tree heavy with fruit is just outside her own bedroom window), a lesson that is reinforced as she hunts for morels with her foraging partner and – spoiler alert – future husband, Owen: Those things for which we search so single-mindedly are often right in front of us, and even when they’re not, may reveal something unexpected that is even better.

Foraging, then, is the perfect pastime for Chin, and, it turns out, the perfect metaphor for her memoir. In the process of honing her skills of identification, sharpening her vision and attuning herself to the land and its constant changes, Chin learns to let go of who she wants her mother and father to be, how she’d like to control her own life and how to allow life’s natural passages – including the deaths of her beloved grandparents – to occur, not without mourning, but without resistance.

These lessons are excellent reminders for anyone and, on their own, make the book worth reading. But then there are the recipes and foraging tips integrated into each chapter, and these make for a pleasant bonus. Chin makes the reader believe that foraging is an activity that is both accessible and rewarding, even in a seemingly hostile landscape like New York City. At the end of the book, we’re cheering for the author, who is the underdog in a cooking contest she really wants to win, and we celebrate with her when she takes home top prize. It seems a just recognition, not only for her award-winning tart, but also for the struggles she has endured to be able to write this lovely book.

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