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Arts & Culture

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

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

Photo: Photo of Ava Chin by Owen Brunette, License: N/A

Photo of Ava Chin by Owen Brunette

Photo: , License: N/A

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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.

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