If you were to take a little bit of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, cross it with some of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, and set the story in the fields and parks of New York City, you’d come up with Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal, a touching new memoir by the New York Times “Wild Edibles” columnist Ava Chin. Confronting the demise of a relationship she thought would end in marriage (but instead just ended), and reeling from the loss of her beloved grandmother, Chin takes to the urban forests of New York City, hunting for blackberries, dandelions and wild greens, ultimately finding herself (oh, and a new guy too.)
It’s crazy to think that you can find wildly healthy foods in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park or even your own backyard, but Chin proves it’s easy once you know where (and how) to look. You’ll never stroll through a park again without looking for something to eat growing right beneath your feet. Chin beautifully threads foraging tips and terrific recipes (wild greens pie, field garlic and hummus, and mulberry-balsamic jam) through a heartfelt memoir that is honest, real and inspiring.
You’re a professor of creative writing at the City University of New York. How did you get started foraging?
I was the kind of kid who grew up pulling onion grass from the back courtyard of my apartment building and eating it. I would also go fishing in New York City waters during summer camp and bring the fish home for my family to eat. I loved that kind of thing. But I didn’t start foraging in earnest until I became an adult, and I went on a foraging walk with a naturalist, Wild Man Steve Brill.
Any tips for urban foragers?
The first thing to do is to go on a walk with a local expert and luckily there are more and more popping up who can teach you what’s edible and what is potentially poisonous. Also, get some great guide books. Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Edible Wild Plants by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman. Also download the app iPlants, which is really the only reason I have an iPhone.
Did foraging help your dating life?
Yes! Being immersed in the plants really helped, because I funneled all the energy I would have lobbed onto dating, or why someone wasn’t calling back or whether someone would love me, into learning Latin names of plants and learning their culinary history. It took my mind off being single in my late 30s, and the pressure my grandmother was putting on me to get married. I had heard that statistic about being hit by lightning being more likely than finding a husband in New York City after a certain age. Being immersed in weeds showed me that the world was a place of great abundance and variety. That was an antidote to the lack of available men.
You ended up meeting your future husband through foraging.
Sort of. I met Owen at a Sukkot party, the Jewish harvest festival, and our second date was a mushroom hunt. The fact that he didn’t think I was crazy for inviting him on a mushroom hunt was a good sign. That made me realize that he could be a keeper.
Do you still forage for food for you and your family?
Yes, I do. It’s great to do with kids. [Ava and Own have a two-year old daughter, Mei.] Recently we foraged for ramps and juneberries. Mulberries will be fruiting in full force soon too. Amaranth and the purslane will be out soon. You just have to know where to look.
Wild Greens Pie
Makes 1 (10-inch) pie
Pie pastry, enough for base and latticework topping
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
3 cups available wild greens, roughly chopped (daylilies, dandelions, garlic mustard or lambsquarters)
1 cup spinach, Swiss chard or store-bought dandelions, roughly chopped
1 cup mustard greens, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
15-ounce container ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano (can substitute Parmesan)
½ cup grated fontina cheese (or any other good melting cheese you prefer)
½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
3 large eggs, beaten
1 egg white, optional
1 teaspoon water, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Press pastry into a 10-inch diameter springform pan. Build pastry up wall of pan at least 1½ inches tall.
In a pan over medium flame, heat 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned (3 minutes), and saute the onion about another 3 minutes. Heat the remaining teaspoon oil, then mix in the wild and store-bought greens, salt and pepper. Saute until all liquid from the greens evaporates, about 3 minutes.
Combine ricotta, Pecorino Romano, fontina, mozzarella and eggs in a large bowl. Add the wild greens mixture, blending well.
Spoon the filling into the pastry-covered pan. Cut the remaining pastry into thin strips and weave into a latticework topping; place over pie, trimming edges. Mix the egg white with the water and brush over pastry, if using. Bake until filling is set in center and browning on top, approximately 40 minutes.
Andrea Strong is a freelance writer whose work often appears in Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She’s probably best known as the creator of The Strong Buzz, her food blog about New York City restaurants. She lives in Brooklyn with her two kids, her husband and her big appetite.