One of the first things you realize about Wild Man Steve Brill is that the city’s most famous forager, who has led edible-weed seekers on tours through city parks for 27 years—isn’t a wild man in the usual sense. Most earn the moniker for their drunken revelry, hair-trigger tempers and arrest records. Well, actually, Brill does have one of those, last nabbed for tearing sweet sassafras roots from small scrubby trees beside one of Central Park’s many side roads. True, it’s a technically a crime, but he swears the trees were already dying.
Like others who prey on wild foods—the mushroom men and the mulberry women—Brill lives somewhat outside the lines of mainstream society, people who don’t sport pith helmets, peer into the brush, tote 77th Street ginkgo nuts and East Side blackberry granita in backpacks or rip up small city trees to brew into tea. But in many ways this Wild Man is a domesticated sweetheart: bespectacled, gray-bearded, goofily hatted, wobbly voiced and prone to bad puns and groan-worthy jokes: “We just found the rarest specimen in the park,” he says at one point: “a working restroom.”
Brill is a vegan, an amateur illustrator—at least in his own set of sweet, foraging-friendly cookbooks—and a father in his 50s who totes his little daughter Violet along on tours in a stroller. Age 5, she forages in a puffy purple vest and green corduroys with hearts on the knees, and finds wild foods like a pro. “You can eat as much as you like,” Brill says proudly, when she pronounces a tart-sweet crop of purple June berries—despite their name, collected one sunny, early fall Sunday in the upper West Side piece of Central Park—to be “yum.” He met her mother a decade ago on a foraging trip, naturally.
Newbies to his weekly tours—not Violet, she’s already an old pro—should also know that Wild Man is a stickler for what he regards as the rules. As his group gathers near the Strawberry Fields on the upper West Side for his flagship Central Park tour that Sunday morning, he starts with a little lighthearted schoolmarm admonishment for those who hadn’t adhered to his detailed instructions, which he sent both by e-mail and in a phone message in case we hadn’t already read them online.
While future foragers peruse his backpack of charmingly low-fi books like Shoots and Leaves of Early Spring in NortheasternNorth America (“Here is dandelion in all its forms,” he warbles as he puts copies out on a park bench), he takes care of business, collecting the $15 fee, calling the tardy (“Hello, Megan. This is Wild Man Steve Brill. I’ve gotalarge group of people standing in Central Park waiting for you”) and chiding the underprepared: (“Next time leave a phone number,” Brill rebukes an empty-handed latecomer, “I would have told you to pack a lunch and bring bags for collecting stuff.”)
Collect stuff you will: Brill’s foraging terrain might be smack in the middle of a metropolis, but his tours reveal the edible world awaiting just beneath your feet.
If a person could come with a tagline, Brill’s would probably be, “yes, you can eat that.” He leads his followers off the road, into the trees, and crashing through the brush to where Parks Department lawnmowers haven’t chopped up the grub, pointing out a ginkgo tree and howto spot them in the fall (if not the “Limburger cheese” smell of the rottingripe fruit on the ground, then by the fluttery butterfly leaves) or a huge crop of honey mushrooms (“yellow or brown, with little bits of stubby white gills”) hidden under decaying leaves near a curb.
Brill’s vocation is to open others’ eyes to the food all around us, right here in a city park: the patches of wriggly grass that are really the salad green called curly cress; the lemony wild purslane that, once you learn its chubby profile, you’ll start to spot everywhere. The fluttery gray mushrooms at the base of oak trees, which are billed as hen-of-the-woods or maiitake mushrooms in the city’s swankiest restaurants. The heart-shaped lemony clumps of wood sorrel called oxalis, which look like clover and you can spot throughout Central Park’s grassy fields; the minty bark of the black birch tree, chewed to relieve pain; or the Asiatic dayflower, whose juicy green flower buds taste like peas, and whose crisp, bell-shaped leaves taste like green beans (really, they do).
And those are just the things you’ll find in the first few minutes. The only thing more remarkable than this bounty is the fact that year after year, Wild Man is just as excited to reveal them as the people on his tour are to discover them, perhaps more so: “When we find something, everyone needs to come right away to get a good look at it,” he says early in every tour, but nobody moves as fast as he does to check out the score. “This is a hen of the woods,” he beams at a follower who has returned to the fold with a massive mushroom in hand. “Congratulations!”
Brill’s obsession began in 1982, back when he was living in Queens and teaching what one can only imagine were very funky ethnic cooking classes. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he was at the forefront ofoff-the-beaten-path city food explorations). One day Brill biked past a group of Greek women in a park, asked what they were doing—insert bad joke here culminating in “it’s Greek to me”—and rode home with a bag of grape leaves he promptly stuffed, declaring the illicit booty delicious.
Hooked, he was eager to spread word of the urban trove, eventually launching tours through most of the area’s city parks and forested zones. And while those started out luring just a lonely handful of hikers and tourists, his first arrest in 1986 and subsequent television fame soon took care of the crowds. (Brill was busted by undercover cops for picking dandelions, but by the time they searched him, he’s fond of saying, he’d eaten the evidence.) Rather than banish Brill, the Parks Department hired him to teach foraging, a job he kept until 1990.
Get ready for the wildavore movement: Brill believes weeds are the most ecologically responsible food source, requiring neither pesticides nor fertilizers, and if you leave enough to reproduce, a renewable resource, too. And who doesn’t love free food, especially in an economic downturn?
But his first stated reason to forage is intensity of flavor: the fresh sparkle of sweet fall greens picked yourself, or the earthiness of a mushroom grown in forest floor soil and fed with nature’s rich diet of composting leaves. And he treats these ingredients with great care in the kitchen: Halfway through each trip he likes to pull chefly snacks from his backpack for all to sample: curried toasted pumpkin seeds, mulberry granita, wild mushroom pâté. His 2002 recipe book, The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, is as lovely and sophisticated as they come. (Many of his recipes plus tour dates and info are online at wildmanstevebrill.com.)
As for death threats—meaning those from eating bad weeds— Brill claims to have only been sickened once, burning his mouth on mushrooms he’s quick to insist a guidebook misidentified. His practical advice is simply to wash everything and be 100 percent certain that what you’re eating is really what you think it is. (Eat, say, the mushroom called the Angel of Death and it’s all over, but despite the gravity of the matter, oneof Brill’s favorite tour jokes is to bark Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Movement 2, also known as the Death March, while discussing this subject.)
But whether or not you make the park your new salad bar, any trip with Brill will leave you marveling at the bona fide buffet we live in. (At minimum, you’ll have stories to tell of looking silly squatting in the shrubbery behind Tavern on the Green.) Just be sure to show upon time, bring plenty of bags and wear practical shoes. “Next time it’s better not to wear sandals on nature tours,” Bill lectured one underdressed forager: “There’s lots of things that can get in your toes.” One can only hope those included honey mushrooms.
Photo credit: Ramin Talaie.