Foraging for food — and for good reading

Last week I read a delightful book called “Eating Wildly.” EatingWildlyCoverAva Chin, who used to write a column called “Urban Forager” for the New York Times, tells us about her foraging for wild edibles in Brooklyn. Her adventures in the field are entwined with tales of her Chinese American family and her love life. She not only shares the joy of discovering wild food sources (and love), she shows us how she turns it into yummy meals (and family). The result is a memoir that is charming and instructional at the same time.

One of the issues she runs into: Some Times readers (and the occasional bureaucrat) inform her that foraging in local parks is not cool and/or not allowed (though the National Park Service does allow it). They say this even though the people foraging are usually careful to harvest in a sustainable way — after all, most hope to return and forage again in the future.

applesIt struck a chord with me because for the last few weeks I’ve been foraging off my neighborhood’s bounty. There’s an apparently abandoned apple tree one block over with apples that are just falling and getting piled up with the fallen leaves. They have a few tiny sooty blotches on them, but they taste wonderful. So I’ve often paused in my walks to pick apples from the branches overhanging the road and stuff my pockets.

I also recently stopped and asked another neighbor about her tree full of pears. Was she going to pick them before the freeze this weekend? She invited me to help myself, and we had a conversation about the variety, which I’d never heard of. I was just as excited to make a new gardening friend as to get free pears. (I took her some of my tomatoes and zucchini in return.)

Saturday morning I woke up thinking of apples and pears, then went off to my urban church to help offer free day-old Panera bread to our needy neighbors. (Panera gives all its leftover baked goods to charity at the end of each day.) I suppose that’s a form of urban foraging, too. I probably should have tracked down the owner of the apple tree, and asked if I could do some serious picking for my church’s food ministry. Maybe next year.

This reminds me that at a “community conversation” on hunger I attended recently, a fellow told a full auditorium that he never bought food because he could get everything he needed dumpster diving. I’m not sure anyone saw that as a particularly helpful suggestion, but I don’t doubt that it’s true. An enterprising soul probably could survive pretty well eating out of our city’s dumpsters. Ideally, of course, more could be done with good food before it ends up in dumpsters.

Hunting food in parks and roadsides and yards isn’t necessarily more dignified than staking out dumpsters — or seeking out charity — but what you find actually growing is often really great to eat — fresh and full of flavor, and healthy, too.

Why not forage widely for ideas as well?

We all consume food, but many of us also consume books. We could stick to bookstores or chain stores or the local public library for our book reading, and do quite well. But readers who are especially adventurous also forage out there in the wild — among the indie authors and publishers.

And yes, some of what we find out there might be the equivalent of spoiled food, or poisonous  mushrooms (best not to guess with them — Chin makes that clear), so it pays to examine every new find carefully. But some of it may be great. Some of it may be tarter, sharper, more incisive, or just more our thing than the committee-chosen, market-driven products of traditional publishing.

Of course, whether you forage for food or ideas, you’re going to get some other folks giving you grief about how you’re going to ruin everything for everyone. What if a dog peed on that? The park will be destroyed! There won’t be any day lilies left! Bookstores are dying! You’re ruining literature! And, of course: Ewwww!

But just as some of the weeds we once overlooked have a way of becoming haute cuisine (think ramps, dandelions, lambsquarters), indie publishing gives authors who don’t fit into the conventional mode a chance to find a foothold. A few will “take” and flourish. And yes, a lot of people will survey the landscape and think, “Are you kidding? This is a wasteland!”

But I suggest you look more carefully. There might just be a great meal out there.