The Searchers

by

08/09/2009

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

We weren’t exactly seasoned foragers. I had only been foraging in the city a few months before I met Neil, who lucked into it the Saturday he rode his bicycle in Prospect Park and found our group picking field greens. But we had come into it in the same way—we were both dealing with break-ups and finding edibles offered some small solace.

We were back in the southern end of the park that day, bundled up against the cold in down coats and hats, hoping to find salad greens and root vegetables. We had gotten kicked out the time before when a Parks official caught someone in our group with a shovel rooting around for parsnips, and so we left all the obvious visibles behind—no digging implements, no hiking sticks, no tell-tale baggies sticking out of our pockets.

That fall, I’d found tenacious weed-like epazote growing outside a parking garage on my block, rare red reishi mushrooms on the base of a tree in Central Park, huge hunks of wild maitake on Staten Island. Even though foraging season was officially over, the city’s green patches still yielded an abundant winter crop for the diligent and intrepid: wild carrots and parsnips, dandelion leaves, field garlic.

We walked through a meadow, intent upon finding ingredients for dinner that week. City foraging means avoiding areas where dogs or humans congregate, for obvious reasons, so we headed towards a wooded, out-of-the-way area. Neil talked about his ex-girlfriend, who sounded like a nightmare to me. He loves foraging because it’s not only connected to nature, but something he can do that doesn’t remind him of his ex.

As we entered a windy footpath up a hill surrounded by trees, we discovered poisonous things. A cluster of Star of Bethlehem—an odorless lily that causes nausea, diarrhea, vomiting—peeping through the dark soil like tiny bulbs of peeled garlic. An orange wet growth of unidentifiable mushrooms, resembling lovely chanterelles, growing on a log.

I won’t pick things I can’t identify—especially mushrooms—so we continued walking beneath a gray wintry sky. By the edge of the path, among the logs and the fallen leaves, a tuft of tall green shoots waved grass-like in the wind, releasing the scent of onions as I bent towards it. The first time I identified field garlic or allium vineale, I flashed back to being ten years old, digging up wild scallions behind the Queens apartment building I grew up in.

“This is great sautéed with mushrooms or mixed into hummus,” I said, grabbing a handful of shoots and pulling, feeling the white bulbs release while Neil snapped a photograph.

Further up the hill, where more allium grew among the underbrush, we found a patch of scallop-shaped mustard garlic. It adds a kick to salads, so Neil and I picked the greens, growing like weeds among the foliage, chewing a few. It tasted as garlic-y as its name suggested, and we sat awhile, listening to the sounds of cars along the traffic circle, a plane overhead.

“This was all green before—you couldn’t see any of that,” I said, looking down the hill through the bare trees. In the distance a woman was jogging. A couple walking their dog.

There we were in the wintry landscape, surrounded by naked trees and dead leaves, and suddenly I realized that we were surrounded by human objects—things formerly hidden by the lushness of summer.

A softball caught in the stump of an old tree.

The shiny brown cylinder of a forty-ounce, laying on its side.

Up ahead, a tagged maple—the largest tree in the area with northern-facing moss and a graffiti tag of a human skull. At its base, hidden from the view of anyone below, was a candle and a plate filled with four long, brown objects.

“What is that?” Neil asked, picking up his camera.

We collected our bags and descended through the bramble and underbrush, burrs the size of pinheads catching the bottoms of our clothing as we got closer.

On an ordinary tin plate—the kind found in a grandmother’s kitchen—someone had placed four plantains, now sitting in an inch of water, before a red votive candle.

“An offering,” I whispered.

The last time I had seen such a thing was at Coney Island in the off-season. I had been walking along the shoreline and stumbled upon the remnants of a sacrificed chicken in a sack with ribbons, dried flowers, a candle. But this offering had been laid out recently—the plantains were a brownish-gray the color of field mice but untouched by any animal, and the votive candle, devoid of saints or icons, had only been lit once and not for long. Someone had hidden it under the maple, and it was only in winter that it was visible from the path.

Neil and I looked down at it—we the recently single Brooklyn foragers, inexpert in so many things. Neither one of us said a word. We didn’t know who placed it there or what they had hoped to accomplish, but whatever the plate was an offering to—whatever needed to be released and exorcised—as I looked up at the tree, the tallest and oldest in the area, with its bare branches reaching towards the sky, I hoped that it was working.

Neither one of us said anything as we left the area with our bags of greens.

Ava Chin writes the “Urban Forager,” a wild edible plants blog for the Local section of the New York Times. She has written for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, the Village Voice, the New York Post, Spin, and Vibe, among others, and is the editor of Split: Stories From a Generation Raised on Divorce (McGraw-Hill).

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