Not only is Ava Chin an English professor, she is also a blogger, author and avid forager. When not writing, Ava can most likely be found foraging for wild edibles in the local parks. Her most recent book is a memoir entitled Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal. Ava took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about her new book, writing and foraging.
What made you want to become a writer?
Initially, it started with a journal. I was raised in the kind of Asian family where you don’t talk about your emotions, and yet, I was feeling so many strong emotions—anger, rage, coupled with extreme sadness—especially when I was an adolescent, that I didn’t know what to do with. Having that journal helped me. I had friends who became cutters, anorexics, or extremely promiscuous. Writing helped me to process my feelings, even when I couldn’t express them to anyone else, and saved me from acting out in negative ways.
Later, my desire to become a writer was based on being unable to find images of myself in contemporary media. This still fuels me.
How did you decided to start foraging?
I’ve always had a weakness for urban natures—I was the kind of city kid who dug up wild garlic from the back courtyard and fished for fluke and flounder from Brooklyn party boats. I went on my first real foraging walk after I broke up with a guy I thought I was going to marry, and after my first bite of lemony wood sorrel—a so-called “weed” that I’d seen in my childhood playgrounds but never knew was edible—I was hooked.
What was the first foraged plant you ate? Did you like it?
Field garlic or wild garlic (Allium vineale) was the first wild plant I’d ever eaten as a child, and it’s still a favorite in our household. It tastes like a very strong Chinese chives and is its wild relative. When I started writing the Urban Forager for the New York Times in February 2009, field garlic was the first plant that I profiled (it was growing on a hillside in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when nothing else was available). Finding it was like being reacquainted with an old friend.
How did you go from being a blogger to writing a book?
Eating Wildly grew out of my writing the Urban Forager. Whenever I told someone what I did, the question I most often received was, “How’d you get started foraging?” I realized that the answer was deeper and more personal—having to do with being Chinese American, raised by a single mother and loving grandparents—than what I could go into in a single 500-700 word column.
I love how you weaved your personal life with your foraging adventures in "Eating Wildly." Do you find that most of your fans prefer one writing style over the other? If so, which one?
As the Urban Forager, my readers were about equally male and female, from around the world, and keen on nature. I believe that Eating Wildly has attracted more women readers who are interested in my personal story of searching for sustenance, self-worth, and love. That said, one of my readers—a white, male Southerner—who originally picked up the book because he’s interested in the environment and sustainability, said he was really affected by the book, and laughingly complained about it being a tear-jerker.
What topic was the hardest to write about?
Writing about the loss of my grandmother—the woman who helped raise me and didn’t laugh whenever I spoke my paltry Cantonese—was probably the hardest thing to do. She wasn’t only my beloved grandma, but also one of my closest friends.
What was it like growing up as an Asian American girl in Queens with a single mom?
It was unusual back then. Most of my friends’ parents were together—even if they hadn’t spoken to one another in years, they didn’t believe in divorce. I was accused of coming from a “too-Americanized” family on several occasions.
Do you know if your father read your book? If so, what was his reaction?
I don’t know.
After winning the best dish contest, you wrote that "I know you're not supposed to ever want to win-it's all about the process, the journey, what you've learned, etc..." but you really loved that winning feeling. Why did you feel guilty about winning what you worked so hard far?
I wanted to win that food contest so badly that it almost felt unseemly. Also, I later became friendly with one of the other contestants—who cooks beautifully rendered food—so I felt a little embarrassed about writing about it. Once I found those oyster mushrooms though, I knew that I had a narrative to go along with the dish, and that meant everything.
By the way, that tree has since been cut down, and the fallen log produces copious amounts of oyster mushrooms every fall.
In your book, you've included many recipes, do you plan to write a cookbook in the future? An Eating Wildly-Paleo cookbook?
Perhaps one day. Right now, I’m concentrating on the next book, about my family’s legacy as civic leaders, bootleggers, and gambling den owners in NYC’s Chinatown.
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