Ava Chin, holding a white mulberry. Credit Tanwi Nandini Islam.

The Hustle: Foraging in Forest Park

They tasted like a vanilla pudding—sweet and light. I’d long wondered if these berries were safe to eat, but Chin seemed to be nibbling without worry…

By Tanwi Nandini Islam
July 16, 2014 | , , , ,

The cool recesses of Forest Park, the third largest park in Queens, were a welcome respite on a sweltering June day. Ava Chin was clearly prepared for foraging: sun hat, cool bottle of Pellegrino, long pants. I arrived waterless and wearing shorts.

At least I had my sunglasses.

Chin and I made our way from the train station toward the park. En route, she stopped and pointed to a green weed bursting from the concrete.

“Looks like someone spray painted them,” I said, pointing to the white powdery center of the plant.

“That’s actually characteristic of lambs quarters,” said Chin. “They’re even healthier for you than spinach.”
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Within minutes, we came across a whole motley of wild edibles—and we hadn’t yet entered the park. Broad-leafed burdock and heart-shaped common violet leaves. Smashed white mulberries on the sidewalk. They tasted like a vanilla pudding—sweet and light. I’d long wondered if these berries were safe to eat, but Chin seemed to be nibbling without worry. Known as the NY Times’ Urban Forager, her popular foraging logs feature local plants that exist on our sidewalks and parks. She went on her first foraging excursions with “Wildman” Stevel Brill in the nineties, and they soon became a way of life for Chin.

I see Eastern European mushroom hunters, who are hunting for mushrooms that most American mushroom hunters would consider inedible. They’re able to render the mushrooms into something tasty.

We strode past the children’s playground and crossed the entrance to the Jackie Robinson Parkway to enter the heart of Forest Park. Finally, the name of these urban woods resonated. A canopy of century-old walnut, oak and dogwood trees enveloped us in their shade. Some trees were marked with an X, or had branches sawed off—most likely to abate the danger of crashing limbs post Hurricane Sandy. Wild sorrel imparted a tart, lemony zest on the tongue. Juicy blackberries sprouted along the path, ready for picking. Red wine berries were not yet ready for tasting, their protective prickly sheaths in place until August.

Chin’s book, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal (Simon and Schuster, 2014), “is an exploration of my life, foraging, love, things that were lost and ultimately found,” said Chin. “I was raised in Flushing, Queens, raised by a single mother and loving Chinese grandparents. It was my grandparents’ copious amount of food they provided that helped me to feel more at home in the world.”

It’s a common misperception, Chin reiterated, that foraging has “hipster” or classist associations.

What Chin described as “the wound left behind” by her absent father, was filled by the marvels beneath her feet, growing all over the city. The edible and medicinal properties of the plants we encountered trace their roots way beyond the current media trend of foragers stocking the kitchens of five star restaurants.

It’s a common misperception, Chin reiterated, that foraging has “hipster” or classist associations. “I see Chinese grandmother types who are foraging for gingko nuts in the fall. In the summertime…foraging for mugwort to use for moxa, for burning in traditional Chinese medicine,” said Chin. “I see Eastern European mushroom hunters, who are hunting for mushrooms that most American mushroom hunters would consider inedible. They’re able to render the mushrooms into something tasty.”

Foraging has been a way for Chin to discover nature in the city that has been home to her family for generations. These days, she’ll take her toddler daughter Mei on excursions to continue the tradition.

 

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