Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal
Simon & Schuster, 2014
256 pp., 34.42
Rachel Marie Stone
Ava Chin's memoir Eating Wildly chronicles her adventures in foraging for wild fungi and greens and berries in New York City parks. But Chin, who teaches creative nonfiction at CUNY's College of Staten Island, is no Annie Dillard or Henry David Thoreau, seeing in the stuff of the earth the reflections of something larger and grander. Instead, Chin seems inadvertently to tell us her real motivation for the foraging that forms the backbone of this book: she wanted to make tenure.
Well, not exactly, but close. Before and while writing Eating Wildly, Chin wrote a column called Urban Forager for the New York Times' City Room blog, a writing gig that, if successful, would "ensure [her] landing tenure … . Without it, I could kiss my job goodbye."
As a writer married to an academic, I understand these concerns, and I am student enough of the history of literature to know that good books, even great books, have been written in part to pay the bills. Still, Eating Wildly feels anything but fresh, and I suspect that one reason for that is because it was written to satisfy a tenure committee.
On top of that, Eating Wildly seems past its "best by" date. While reading, I penciled a question in the margins: "have we reached peak foodie?"
This book certainly has. Memoirs and personal narratives about food can reach well beyond the boundaries of palate and personal experience to express larger ideas, but this one doesn't. By way of contrast, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, to which most food books after 2006 (including this one) pay homage, plumbs the "natural history" of four meals in a way that opens up explorations of culture, history, the meaning of progress, the tension between conceiving of health as largely an individual matter and conceiving of health as a question of the common good.
Chin dutifully cites Pollan and other food writers, including the forager Euell Gibbons, who first wrote about "stalking" wild foods in the early 1960s—and, not incidentally, grew up foraging food not as a hobby-cum-writing project in New York City but rather, grew up foraging because he lived in the Dust Bowl during the Dust Bowl. Chin's terrain is well trodden, and she seems to know it. She confesses her "worst fears" about writing the fledgling Urban Forager column: "Readers were going to see right through me and suspect that I was a fraud. I hadn't been foraging all that long, so why should they trust me?"
Why, indeed? Especially because her writing about urban foraging is unrelieved by humor or even a hint of awareness that being paid by the New York Times and receiving tenure for writing about foraging for food in the five boroughs of New York City might suggest a measure of privilege. Chin seems blissfully unaware that she is in hipster territory, even as she refers unironically to her "humble Park Slope [Brooklyn] abode." Her writing is at times embarrassingly earnest, bordering on mock-heroic: "Foraging for food is a little like a mythic quest [… involving …] losing a lot of sleep and garnering no small amount of heartache."
At this point, I had to remind myself what, in fact, she was talking about: taking walks in the park and looking for edible weeds.
I kept waiting for a turn in the narrative where Chin realizes that her quest is leading her to some recognize something greater and more universal about life and love, but when it comes, that turn is easily missed and makes almost no sense: "all of these seasons of foraging" taught Chin that "my life is no one else's but my own." How's that again? How foraging taught her that, and what it has to do with us, her readers, remains a mystery.
This memoir—which earned a starred Kirkus Review and favorable mention in The New York Times Book Review and Library Journal's year-end list of best books—is clogged with clichés, odd phrasing, and, worst of all, misused homophones. Chin's mother, we are told, once "hawked" [sic; should be "hocked"] a diamond engagement ring to pay the rent; more than once, Chin speaks of "pouring" over [sic; should be "poring over"] cookbooks, and at one point, she yells at her father, who hasn't responded to her repeated attempts to "get ahold" of him.
The list of clichés includes
—"pick of the litter"
—"wiping her hands against each other as if wiping them clean of the whole affair"
—"hard-core Southern roots" (Roots or cores? What metaphor is she going for?)
—"trying to fit a square peg in a round hole"
Even her simplest descriptions are at times grating. I wouldn't have thought it possible, for example, to describe the baking of blueberry muffins in a nauseating way without actively trying to do so, but Chin's reference to putting the "wet mix" into the oven and experiencing the "squirt of hot berries" proved that it can be done. Similarly, her narration of her eventual engagement to Mr. Right was something less than thoroughly romantic: "In a few weeks, Owen will serve his wife in Germany her divorce papers, and we will giddily visit Tiffany's … "
Some of the responsibility here—particularly for the clichés and the misuse of homophones, but also for the unfortunate gathering of divorce papers and engagement rings into the same sentence—surely falls on the editors. And perhaps on tenure committees who push "publish or perish" without respect for quality work—and the time it takes to produce it.
If nothing else, Chin's memoir proves that it is possible to write a memoir—even a memoir filled with personal details, angst, and confession—about a still largely unexamined life. Whether it's worth reading is hardly a matter of debate. Still, next time I'm home in New York, I might be tempted to hunt for—but probably not to gather—wild edibles.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).
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