I was only about six years old when my mother gave me and my older sister, Ping, each a basket and told us to go out and collect grass clippings and wild clover for animal food. It would be incomprehensible these days, but we ran a little improvised "farm" right in our tiny yard in the center of the city, raising chickens, ducks, pigeons, and even rabbits, a precious food source for my desperate parents. When we got older, we learned to harvest mulberries, loquats, and figs, often with bamboo poles serving as our clumsy, extended arms. That is, when we were lucky enough to find these treasures. We also hunted in local dumpsters for the unburned remains of coal nuggets and gathered fallen sticks in neighborhood streets so our mother could start a fire and cook dinner. My life has very much changed since then, especially after I flew across the ocean and arrived in a bountiful country called America some 30 years ago. I never have to worry about food shortages anymore, or scrounge for my next meal to stave off hunger. Instead, I've been pampered with an overwhelming number of dining options and supermarket choices. Food is always magically there and surprisingly affordable. Gradually, the word "forage" all but faded from my memory. Earlier this year, our lives were suddenly turned upside down by the spread of COVID-19, which soon ballooned into a pandemic. Our struggle, this time, is not against bad politics, a natural disaster, or war, but a lethal virus too small to be seen by the naked eye, which has made this battle all the more challenging. Like most Americans, I rushed to stock up before hunkering down to practice social distancing in the hope that we can help to stop the virus from spreading and save lives. For many weeks now, we have relied on our pantry and fridge for all our family meals. As the cook-in-chief, I've been cautiously guarding my supplies, watching helplessly as my precious onions and garlic threatened to run out. What could I do? One day, I was out giving my puppy his daily walk. For the moment, the colorful Maryland spring made me forget about my worries as I enjoyed eyefuls of daffodils, tulips, dogwoods, and cherry blossoms... and then I spotted a clump of wild chives, lusciously green. I was ecstatic! My foraging instinct suddenly kicked in, and I collected a whole big bag before I skipped home with Banjo.
That night, I made duck confit with roasted chives, carrots and peppers, and the dinner was a success. Everyone raved about the delicate, oniony taste of wild chives – even more than the crispy duck itself! Afterwards, my children, Keaton and Halley, also sprang into action. They pickled a bottle of pearl-white chive bulbs with fennel salt and mint, a wonderful home-made condiment to enliven many lunches to come.
Foraging has brought much excitement to our lives and enriched our table. Every time we walk our dog Banjo, we now look out for wild edibles, whether chives or tender bamboo shoots. Even though we live in the modern age, these experiences remind us that in hard times, we can still count on Mother Nature for a little support and more than a little delight. Reflections from the East Column:
By Qin Sun Stubis