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An Urban Forager in the Wilds of New York City

An Urban Forager in the Wilds of New York City
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“I have a B.A. in psychology that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” “Wildman” Steve Brill said one day recently after leading a foraging tour in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He was wearing his usual uniform of safari-style khakis, a pith helmet on his head and a holstered spade hanging from his belt.

“Then I tried to become a chess master,” he said. “I’m a good chess player, but not master-material. Then I started cooking and got more interested in food, and then I discovered there were wild foods.”

He made that discovery one day in the early 1980s, while bicycling through Queens.

“There were these ethnic-Greek women picking something in one of the parks, all dressed in black,” he said. “I stopped, asked them what they were doing, but I couldn’t understand a word -- it was all Greek to me. However, I came home with a bag of grape leaves, which I stuffed. Then I started getting books about foraging, many written by botanists who didn’t forage or cook, so the information was not always accurate. But at least I knew how to not kill myself doing this,” he said.

Soon after, he decided to lead foraging tours in New York City parks. “I’ve been practicing TM (Transcendental Meditation) since 1975, and the name ‘Wildman’ just popped into my head one day,” he said of his handle.

Ever since, he’s made his living showing people how to identify edible and medicinal wild plants and fungi in New York City parks and fields. He also shows aspiring foragers what to avoid.

“Eat the wrong thing,” he told the group at Green-Wood Cemetery, “and---.” He fell to the ground, and laid out stiffly in corpse-pose. Then, rising, he beat-boxed a few bars of Chopin’s Funeral March.

“Okay, so, at this time of year there are lots of greens coming up, we’re going to look for those,” he said. “There are shoots, which are stems with leaves around them, and there are roots.”

He’d never led a tour in Green-Wood cemetery before, he admitted.

“It’s a little unusual, definitely, but it’s peaceful and serene here – plus, if anyone eats the wrong thing, they’ll be right at home,” he said.

The manicured lawns were a little challenging, however.

“I’m only seeing grass here, where are areas that aren’t totally grassy?” he asked, before pausing at a hillside the mowers had missed. A dandelion! He dug it up by the roots and held it aloft.

“Okay, here’s probably the best-known edible plant, the wild dandelion,” he told his followers. “The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent-de-lion,’ which means lion’s tooth, it has these tee-- Stop that! It has these tee – Don’t do that! It has these --- Will you stop biting me? I’ll bite you back! Mmmm, quite good, tastes like lettuce. Here, ‘lettuce’ see what you think,” he said, offering the leaves to two children.

“It has long, narrow leaves, with large teeth that point toward the base of the leaf,” he said. “The dandelion is good to eat before it flowers. It’s a tiny bit bitter, but very tasty, and gets very bitter as it gets closer to the flowering state. It’s loaded with Vitamin A, calcium, iron and potassium -- very, very nutritious.”

Over the course of two hours, Brill found several other edibles growing among the graves, including violets, hairy bittercress, star chickweed and wild garlic. He served them all up with sprinklings of botanic description and cooking tips – illustrated by his drawings and photographs on the iPad he carried – and a patter of exceedingly well-worn jokes, mixed with stories from history, myth and his own life.

His favorite is his own legend: his 1986 arrest in Central Park as he was leading a tour. The charge: criminal mischief, for eating a dandelion.

“They were undercover agents that were sent on my tour by the New York City Parks Department,” he said, “A man and a woman who said they were married. They paid me with marked bills.”

It’s a long story. The condensed version has a battalion of park rangers popping “out from behind the bushes,” Brill said. “They hauled me off to the police station in handcuffs, they searched my backpack – fortunately, I had eaten all the evidence – and they issued me a desk-appearance ticket that said I had to go to court and could face a year [in prison], if convicted.”

Brill called the newspapers, and the story made headlines in the U.S. and several other countries. “When they took me to court, I served Wildman’s Five-Borough Salad on the steps of the Manhattan Criminal court to reporters and passerby -- The press ate that up, too,” he said, concluding triumphantly.

“The city dropped the charges, hired me and for the next four years I led foraging tours with the Parks Department. They were paying me for it. So, that wild dandelion was the best thing I ever ate!”

He’s since earned his living through his tours of New York’s parks and nature preserves, sometimes accompanied by his nine-year-old daughter, Violet. He’s also published several books, including The Wild Vegan Cookbook, and an app, Wild Edibles.

While the foragers at Green-Wood gathered eagerly, what they bit into got mixed reviews: “It really does taste like corn!” exclaimed one woman sampling chickweed. “It’s a slightly spicy taste, but it’s pretty, like, solid green-ish,” said a young man. “Uck, no,” a small girl told her father, spitting out a bit of leaf.

Brill said the point of the tours is education and enjoyment, not sustenance from New York City earth. But if it came to that, he said, “I’m not a wilderness survivalist, but if I had to, I certainly know enough plants that you can eat, that I wouldn’t starve.”

Unless, maybe, more people take up urban foraging. Several years ago, the New York City Parks Department reportedly considered stepping up enforcement of its ban on foraging, citing ecological concerns, as foraging tours bring in groups of dozens every weekend to pluck and pick. The move was dropped, however, and Brill and other naturalists continue freely to “sever, mutilate, kill [and] remove” New York City plants, unmolested by police or park rangers.

Legality was not at issue at Green-Wood, a private cemetery which had invited Brill to lead a tour. And the people pushing up the daisies (another edible flower) weren't complaining, either.