Ava Chin, a professor of creative nonfiction with the City University of New York, wrote the popular Urban Forager column for The Nabe back when it was The Local in 2009. Her new memoir, ” drawn from her experiences searching for edible plants and love in New York City, will be released on May 13. Chin will also be leading a foraging tour in Fort Greene Park on May 15 at 6 p.m., followed by a book reading and signing at Greenlight Bookstore.
We sat down with Chin recently to talk about foraging in Fort Greene Park, her book and finding her soulmate.
How did you become interested in urban foraging?
I am a native New Yorker and grew up in the city. The only nature that I really saw were the weeds that grew in the back courtyard of our apartment building. Onion grass or field garlic grew wild and I used to dig it up. I knew it was edible because it looked like the chinese scallions my grandfather cooked.
As an adult I learned foraging from experts and herbalists, upstate and in Boulder, Colorado. I’d go on walks. and found that the weeds I grew up with were edible.
What’s different about finding your own food versus going to a grocery store?
I found the medicinal properties of food inspiring and helpful. Motherwort I knew was medicinal from Chinese medicine. My Chinese doctor in Sunset Park prescribed it to me, but finding it growing in the front yard of a herbalist in Boulder – there’s something different about seeing a plant in its natural habitat, thriving. To me it’s magical, and it has to do with seeing what kind of of environment its in, where it is in its growth cycle. In stores, everything is eternal until its expiration date.
What was it like when you first started writing the column?
At first I was a little scared that I wasn’t going to find anything. I knew Fort Greene fairly well, I had friends there who had lived there since the early ’90s. I saw it as a place with a lot of artists and activists. I went on a lot of long walks around Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and started seeing the neighborhood in a different way. Readers were really warm and welcoming to me, and it was one of the most popular columns there.
What kinds of edible plants grow in the neighborhood?
For my first time writing the column, I wrote about lambsquarters, which are related to spinach. There’s Asiatic dayflowers, common mallow. Reader invited me into her backyard because she found a weed growing opportunistically in her planters that turned out to be common mallow. It’s not my favorite, but you can use in salads and cook with it. The reader was thrilled and said she was going to let it grow and eat it.
If you want to begin foraging, what’s the best way?
Sign up for a tour, because you need an expert to show you what’s edible and what’s potentially poisonous. I recommend getting a field plant guide app. You can follow up by going on walks on your own and meeting friends on walks.
If you can identify a dandelion, you’re already foraging.
New York isn’t the cleanest of cities, how can you be sure the plants are safe to eat?
I don’t eat plants from the street and I don’t advocate anyone doing that. The best place to find safe plants are areas far away from traffic and at a distance from buildings so you don’t have to worry about lead. If there’s an area you visit a lot, I recommend getting the soil tested for heavy metals. You can send a soil sample to Brooklyn College for a very reasonable fee.
What inspired you to write this book?
It’s the story behind the story of Urban Forager, a personal take on how it changed me and helped me to heal up from some old wounds that I carried from childhood that I didn’t know I had. Writing the column gave me solace when my grandmother was ailing. I was writing about mulberries when she was in the hospital for the last time, and the readers of The Local were so kind and generous with their online comments.
Readers wrote in about their favorite mulberry trees, the history of that mulberry tree. It was a period that was very tough for me. I’ll always be indebted to the readers and the residents in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
You also write about relationships in your book, and it seems like urban foraging could be a good metaphor for dating in New York.
Foraging is all about the search to find something. I knew I wanted to have a family and to meet somebody. I knew I needed a big change and foraging was it. As soon as I stopped obsessing over my love life I started obsessing over plants. I’ve been able to extract the metaphor of foraging to other parts of my life. If I’m focusing on a single thing that I want to find, I’ll be disappointed. But if I walk my path and I’m keeping my vision open, I’ll always find something better than what I was expecting, and that’s true in foraging and true in relationships and dating.
Wild Morel Linguini
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon butter
2 small shallots, diced
8 ounces sliced morels
1 tablespoon cream sherry
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pound cooked linguini
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1. 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.
2. Add the sliced chopped morels and cook until they are a deep chocolaty color.
3. 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.
4. Remove from the heat, and finish the sauce off with a touch of heavy cream and salt and pepper to taste.
5. 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.
Yield: 4 servings