Forager Steve Brill: wild about wild stuff

He shows folks who are green about plant life just what's fit to eat

October 29, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - By this time of year, most people who gather food from the land have brought in the crops and celebrated the harvest, at least in this part of the world.

Not Steve Brill, a New York City native who calls himself "Wildman." He'll be culling food well into December.

Brill is a forager, a connoisseur of the uncultivated plants that grow so profusely under our noses that we never seem to notice them. He also has a knack for finding them in unexpected places - like Manhattan's Central Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn or Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.

From early spring through late fall, Brill leads excursions through public parks in and around New York City, encouraging those of us with narrower definitions of "fit to eat" to take a closer look at the edible plants in our yards, parks, woods and meadows.

It's a role he relishes, and he owes his success in part to a brush with the law. In 1986, he was arrested after a field trip and charged with criminal mischief for plucking and eating dandelions in Central Park.

The incident produced spots on the national news and headlines like "Rangers weed out wild salad eater" and "Teeth off the grass - Parks muzzle weed maven."

The brouhaha was enough to persuade Parks Commissioner Henry Stern to stop prosecuting Brill and start paying him to open the public's eyes to a wilder side of food.

Now he has an extensive schedule of tours in and around New York City, and has published two cookbooks, The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook: A Forager's Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Food, With More Than 500 Recipes (the Harvard Common Press, 2002, $29.95) and Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places (with Evelyn Dean, William Morrow & Co., 1994).

Spend a few hours foraging with Brill, or even browsing through his books, and you'll begin to see unexpected connections between the "weeds" in your yard and the neatly arranged, highly tamed plants we're accustomed to finding in the produce section of a grocery store.

Keep at it for a while, and you'll find yourself examining previously anonymous plants with new respect.

Are you a fan of herbal teas? Instead of heading for the store for your next supply, brew some free tea with twigs from the common spicebush.

Do you think you need dairy products to make tasty ice cream? Try Brill's fresh blueberry frozen concoction, with free berries courtesy of some local wild place.

Want new vigor in your salads? Add fresh-picked wild onions or sheep sorrel to your store-bought greens for concentrated flavors and extra bite.

Our family did that after a foraging trip through Central Park with Brill - and our son was able to brag that he had sampled "Central Park Salad" with dinner.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the day was the chance to explore nooks and crannies of Central Park that most New Yorkers - let alone out-of-towners like us - never take time to see.

We emerged from the park with plastic bags bulging with chickweed, burdock root and other discoveries, as if we'd just shopped our way through a well-stocked outdoor market. But we didn't spend a penny, aside from a nominal donation to Brill (which was optional). And all the plants we plucked are as abundant and quickly replenished as the dandelions in our yard.

Our adventure began on a gray and drizzly Sunday morning. Although we followed instructions and came prepared with lunches to sustain us through the four-hour expedition, we weren't convinced we'd stay long enough to need them.

But then we set out through the park, accompanied by Brill's endless store of naturalist's knowledge delivered in cheerful banter, and all thoughts of leaving early were left behind.

We were walking on the wild side - or at least a wilder side of the food chain than usual - and each time we discovered the overlooked potential in some common plant, our definition of food seemed to bulge a little wider.

We examined sumac, whose berries can impart an appealing sour flavor. Late in the year, you can gather clusters of the berries, soak them in water at room temperature and you'll have your own wild pink lemonade.

Or use the same liquid as a concentrate to flavor salad dressings or sauces. Just be sure the berries are red. The poisonous variety of sumac has white berries.

We found chickweed and sheep sorrel growing free and unfettered, their culinary possibilities largely overlooked by visitors to the park.

And we had a vivid lesson in the importance of knowing what you're eating. As we passed through a wooded area, Brill gathered us around a white snake root plant in the underbrush. The attractive white blossom gave no hint that eating these leaves would be a bad idea.

"This plant has killed people who never even saw it," Brill said. Remember the story about young Abraham Lincoln losing his mother while he was still a boy? This plant was to blame.

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