We’ve eaten in parks before but eating with “Wildman” Steve Brill is a slightly different experience. The self-titled “Wildman” leads foraging tours of New York area parks, part of his mission to promote urban agriculture and sustainable eating.
Brill came to the public’s notice in the 1980s. Arrested by NY Parks Rangers for eating a dandelion, he parlayed the charge into a full-time job as the official Parks Department naturalist, leading the same tours that led to his arrest in the first place. Since going freelance in the ’90s, the “naturalist and science geek” continues to lead tours, both to the public and for school field trips. He’s also published three books on wild eating, consulted for the Parks department and advised several New York chefs on sustainable ingredient choices.
The Prospect Park entrance: a garden of lamb’s quarters, shepherd’s purse and poor man’s pepper
We recently headed to Prospect Park to find out what we could eat. About 50 adventurous people gathered at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park, led by an enthusiastic Brill. We’ve barely started when Brill makes his first find. “Lamb’s quarters” he says. Great for salads and flavoring soups. So were the poor man’s pepper, wood sorrel and shepherd’s purse, all of which were growing in abundance throughout the park.
An elderberry tree– and part of the next day’s elderberry pancakes
Brill’s tours are filled with bad puns, old jokes and lengthy descriptions of each plant. He uses an iPad to show some close-up drawings he’s made to help us identify what the plants look like in different seasons. As we shovel and gather elderberries and hawthorne apples, Brill shares recipes with us. We gather elderberries for pancakes and sassafras root for our very own handmade, locally-sourced, artisanal root beer.
The most important plants however, are the ones to avoid. Brill shows us poison ivy but also plants that cause indigestion, violent illness or worse. He stresses that foraging can be extremely dangerous and since both types of edible and poisonous plants look almost identical to beginners, it’s important to join someone experienced when foraging.
A quick lesson on identifying poison ivy
Is urban foraging environmentally sustainable or even legal? ‘Wildman’ Brill says he forages responsibly, restricting his choices to plants that are renewable and constantly regenerating. When it comes to legality, the Parks Department officially bans foraging. Yet actual policy appears somewhat looser, with Brill saying park rangers typically wave at him during tours.
For more on ‘Wildman’ Steve Brill and upcoming tour dates to Central Park, Inwood, Prospect Park and Long Island and even the Appalachian Trail, click here. See more quirky NYC facts and discoveries in our “Daily What?!”series. Submit your own via Twitter with the hashtag #DailyWhat.