During the four hours from 72nd St. and Central Park West we kept to areas away from heavy traffic, often entering spaces filled with hackberries (related to apples), encountering greens such as lamb’s-quarters (a wild spinach), sour wood sorrel, sheep sorrel, lady’s thumb, and medicinal herbs like burdock, and sassafras, which can be steeped to make tea and used to flavor root beer.
He showed the distinction between poisonous mushrooms and safe ones: “they have to be pure white and soft,” he said. Wildman advises to always cook mushrooms. Although he
assures there is no pesticide spraying in the areas he ventures through.
Later the group sat down for lunch and I tried Wildman’s vegan and wild food creations: curry sunflower seeds, vanilla ice cream and “True grits” (corn grits).
Before becoming “Wildman” and going on food hunts, Steve Brill was fascinated with chess and was competing in chess tournaments until he decided to focus on cooking.
Who knew he would get arrested in 1986, after undercover park rangers had joined his tour and handcuffed him for eating a dandelion in Central Park? But the wild stories don’t stop there, after being released he made his case to newspapers and television shows around the country, giving him a bigger audience then he ever had.
The Queens Ledger-Brooklyn Star caught up with Steve Bill as the tour ended to see what this scholarly “Wildman” has brewing in his mind.
CV: For those who don’t know, what is foraging?
SB: We look for common renewable resources: herbs, greens, berries, nuts, seeds, fruits [and] mushrooms that most people over look and are usually not sold in stores and are very delicious and helpful.
CV: What does the tour consist of?
SB: We go over Botany and science, history, folklore, mythology, my own anecdotes, artwork and music. Everything related to what were finding to make the experience rich. I go over recipes. I cook up all of these plants. You tasted some of them.
CV: How did you learn this practice?
SB: I’m self taught. I have a B.A in psychology that’s not worth the paper it’s written on. I started on this path when I was trying to become a chess master after college and got hungry. I made a detour into the kitchen and started a recipe from inside the oatmeal box; the cookies where quite delicious and then I graduated to the raisin box. I eventually found my way to the public library and started doing recipes from cookbooks. I was also studying my own alternative nutrition, which did not exist as an academic subject in 1980.
CV: If you were not the Wildman, what would Steve Brill be doing?
SB: I don’t know. I was teaching classes in a professional catering [place.] The grueling work of being a professional cook wasn’t really for me, so this is probably the only thing I’m good at doing.
CV: How about chess?
SB: I could not become a chess master. I’m a good amateur player probably at the level of a really good baseball player, who at his best could hold his own with the minor league once in a while, which is pretty good when you see people playing baseball in the park, but not a level where you can do it professionally. The chess stopped when I started fooling around with food and cooking, which I seem to have more talent with.
CV: You spoke about this before. How global warming is affecting certain plants?
SB: Either the plants are coming into season a month earlier like the field garlic we saw before, which we usually don’t find until the end of December.
CV: What are some of the best medicinal plants you’ve found?
SB: The best medicinal plants is eating all the wild foods and preventing yourself from getting sick which is what I’ve done; using the plants as food when you’re healthy. I swim a mile in 37 minutes, which isn’t record breaking but for 62 years-old it shows you’re figure fit. (He also does “rapid walking” in the morning to make sure he has his aerobic exercise.)
CV: But is there one plant you’re surprised by?
SB: The one that’s most important for me is one called jewelweed, which you use to cure mosquitoes bites. Because the mosquitoes love me.
CV: I need that one.
SB: That’s very helpful. We didn’t find it today but we find it on most of our tours.
CV: When is it usually out?
SB: It’s out in spring, summer and early fall. We found it yesterday and the day before. We could have gone over it today, but I wanted to look for the things we did find.
CV: A lot of people think the soil in central park is contaminated.
SB: It’s not, you pick stuff away from heavy traffic. The stuff you have to worry about is what’s in the store. Agribusiness gets away with spraying huge quantities of toxins and no one quite knows what happens when all these toxins live inside the human body, so I rather pick stuff in clean areas in the park then trust Monsanto.
CV: What about protecting the parks?
SB: Did any of the plants looks like there weren’t going to re-generate? These are all things that are cut down by the mower. You have to know the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources, which is a distinction that the Parks Department is not making. It’s very insincere and intellectually dishonest. I challenge anyone to find where the lamb's-quarters, lady’s thumb and hackberries are not going to come back.
CV: How do you keep this tour fresh?
SB: I’m always finding new things, and there are new people with interesting perspectives, so I have a lot of fun whenever or wherever I do this. And of course the kids, the kids. We only had two I wish more people had brought more kids.
Brill often gives tours at various parks throughout the five boroughs. His next tour is Saturday, September 17, at Prospect Park, Brooklyn. On October 8, he will be in Forest Park, Queens. For more information on his tours, visit wildmanstevebrill.com.