I saw something unusual when I emerged from my apartment building Friday morning. An older Asian man with his arms raised above his head was pushing rhythmically against one of the few scraggly trees on the block. On one of his hands he wore a plastic glove. A crazy, I thought. But quickly I discerned the method to this madness. The tree’s berry-sized fruit pattered the pavement like rain as the man continued to deliver blows to the tree. Sensing me, he turned, and, making the connection between his ethnicity and what I know about New York trees, I inquired, “Gingko?”. He flashed a crooked smile, grunted in affirmation and knelt down to collect the gingko nuts on the ground.
Gingko biloba trees are common in New York City. Native to China, the tree’s nut-like fruit is used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine, and some among the Chinese immigrant population in the city make the most of this public arboreal endowment each fall when the fruit ripens. Though I knew about the gingko trees, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would be interested in foraging fruit from the city’s trees. To me, it’s another potent example of cities’ capacity for producing food, and a kind of parable for the false dichotomy between the agrarian and the urban. Without any purposeful cultivation, food is already growing all around us. Even the activity, the pollution, and the endless pavement of this massive metropolis can’t stop plants from growing and bearing fruit.
When I studied abroad in Spain, I marveled at the orange trees that were planted everywhere in cities in the south. I would occasionally pick up an orange that had fallen to the ground and breathe in deeply the sweet citrus smell at the base of the stem. I was curious as to how they would taste, but hesitant to try one as someone had warned me they were actually quite bitter. Moreover, there was something impure about a city-grown orange. It was tainted by its presence in a public space, unsequestered from the masses of people walking by daily and the other perceived contaminants of its environment. Our sterilization obsessed culture, with its shrink-wrapped and tamper-proof-packaged guarantees of wholesomeness, prohibited the consumption of such an orange.
Immigrants, particularly those from poorer countries where food doesn’t just magically appear at the grocery store, seem less hung up on the provenance of urban-foraged food. This can sometimes be problematic, as when fishing the East River. And pollution can be a legitimate concern for plants growing in an urban environment. (Just how much of a concern? I may have found a new research topic… ). In the case of gingko nuts, I can’t imagine there being any major concern. There’s certainly no shortage of adventurous food writers who have gathered their own gingko nuts, cooked them up at home, and lived to tell about it.