Ava Chin, Eating Wildly

This past weekend’s column. I enjoyed the book, but also look how pretty the cover is.

 

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Late in Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a radio producer asks the author why she forages. Momentarily hesitant, she explains that foraging reminds her “that the world is a generous place […] I know that plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”

Chin’s book, in large part a forager’s handbook, does make the world seem a particularly generous place. Parks in New York yield fruit and herbs and a huge variety of mushrooms; Eating-Wildly-covereven in the more populated parts of the city it is possible to find unknown treasures. Even in the winter nature provides; dandelions sprout serendipitously, or a little effort reveals a spread of field garlic. Chin is the author of a blog on urban foraging for the New York Times and she is at her best when she portrays the world as busting with life, all interconnected, and ready to share that bounty with those who care to look. Organised loosely around the seasons, each chapter is dedicated to some new (or rediscovered) food that Chin finds in the course of her journey. Many chapters end with simple recipes using the food stuff in question, while others explain a technique, like the drying of mugwort leaves or how to create a spore print to identify a mushroom. With an index, a bibliography and a short list of other resources, Eating Wildly is very much a book about food, about the process of finding it and thinking about it and consuming it.

But it is also a memoir. This is not unusual for a book about food; food and the ways in which we think about it tend to be deeply emotive. Over the course of the book we see Chin work out her complicated and loving relationship with her grandmother, the end of one long-term relationship and various attempts to begin another, her difficulty in coming to terms with the father who abandoned her, and most of all her relationship with her mother. The narrative skips back and forward in time, jumping from memory to memory, many of which are food-centred. Those set during the author’s childhood are particularly well done—Chin doesn’t simplify, or downplay the hurt that people who love one another are capable of inflicting upon each other.

It is in its contemporary storyline that Eating Wildly stumbles. One danger of writing a personal memoir intertwined with a foraging diary is that in trying to turn these two strands into a unified whole the things that are strongest about them may be rendered secondary to the larger narrative. There are moments when the story of Chin’s foraging experiences and that of her emotional journey come together in genuinely moving ways—as it does when, leaving the hospital where her grandmother has died she comes across the mulberry tree for which she’s been hunting across the city. But often the book’s structure is a little too obvious; it’s all too clear what this chapter’s big revelatory moment will be, and the text is eager to make the connection between what Ava learns in one sphere and how the resulting lesson might be applied to the other—as when an encounter with a hive of bees reminds her that there can only be one “Queen” in her partner’s life. The neatness of this intertwining makes it all a little too pat, as if Chin’s emotional life could be fixed entirely by a year’s experiences. Some of the rawness that made the earlier sections work is lost.

At its best, Eating Wildly is moving as a memoir and fascinating as a food book. In its weaker moments it provokes some rolling of the eyes. And the wild mushroom, fig and goat cheese tart looks amazing.

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