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Queens Chronicle

Spring Guide 2013: Foraging Back to nature

Steve ‘Wildman’ Brill takes groups on Forest Park tours

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Posted: Friday, April 19, 2013 4:00 am

Most New Yorkers will never need to forage nor want to, and maybe some think it’s a ludicrous activity for an urbanite. But for some it’s a novelty, or at least an interesting party trick to be able to know the difference between the Star of Bethlehem — a poisonous plant that looks like field garlic, but has no smell and flat leaves — and the edible field garlic, a tastey plant with tubular leaves and succulent bulbs.

Steve “Wildman” Brill has taken this knowledge to another a level — a career in fact. The Wildman takes packs of New Yorkers and tourists on weekends excursions through the city’s parks. 

This Sunday, April 21, he will show tour goers where to find burdock root, sassafras and black birch, among other edibles, in Forest Park.

 Check out wildmanstevebrill.com for details  beyond where to meet (the stone wall at Union Turnpike and Park Lane), how much (suggested donation of $20, $10 for kids), how to sign up (call [914] 835-2153) and other information.

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Last Saturday Brill took about 40 individuals from Long Island, upstate, New Jersey and the city on a foraging tour of Central Park.

Bob, a native Astorian who now lives in Orange County, remembers when Brill had his own show on Queens public access television. It was filmed in a bare room with samples of his findings all filmed with a camera that produced a grainy picture. He described the show as interesting as well as sheer entertainment. Bob used to play hooky from high school and come up to Central Park — but “never this far” he said, adding that the park up at 103rd Street, where the group started, wasn’t the safest place to be back then.

 When Bob saw Brill on Facebook sometime this year, he decided he had to come and see the Wildman at work. 

As he said this, the professional forager began to serenade a couple who was celebrating an anniversary. He used his cupped hands and cheeks to perform a song that sounded somewhere between banging on empty buckets and blowing into a bottle.

“He’s a wild man,” Bob said with a grin.

And then the tour began.

 The Wildman took the group up a hill noting he only forages in disturbed habitats that are accustomed to regenerating quickly, such as a mound that decades ago had been upturned by a tornado. Each year he forages on the hill and each following year it is covered with a new supply of edible weeds and shrubs.

Garlic mustard was the first plant Brill plucked from the ground. The leaves have a garlic taste, which protects it from insects “unless the insects are Italian,” Brill said, while the roots taste like horseradish.

As the sun peeked out, Brill tightened the strap on his safari hat and relayed an encyclopedia of knowledge peppered with jokes and even the story of his 1986 arrest for “defoliating Central Park” after eating a dandelion in front of two undercover Parks Department employees. 

He pointed out more edibles such as violets; mica caps, a type of mushroom that makes a “nice dip”; bitter dock, a leafy green that is tastey cooked but “pretty gross otherwise”; and all of this was only in the first hour of the four-hour tour.

During lunch he passed out samples of curried sunflower seeds he had foraged as well as truffles made with wild coffee beans he had found growing in Central Park last year.

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Beyond sifting through the variable produce aisles offered by city parks Brill has progressed mightily into the 21st century with an app, “Wild Edibles,” for iPads and iPhones. 

It’s one of the most comprehensive apps on the Internet, with an encyclopedia of knowledge.

“I’ve been putting together this information my whole life,” Brill said. 

Brill started foraging in the late ’70s with field guides used to identify wildflowers. He graduated university with a psychology degree, but he said it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. So his knowledge — an impressive talent of naming almost every edible handed to him on a tour as well as creating vegan recipes for all his wild goodies — is all self-taught.

The $8 app displays pages upon pages of trees, shrubs, nuts, seeds — all edible. Click on the ginkgo tree and find out how it smells, “like rotting flesh,” and recipes how to eat the disgusting-smelling, delicious-tasting nuts.

There are also sketches and photographs, all created by Brill.

One feature of the app narrows down edibles. Pick the area where one sees the plant —  in a park or in a forest — then pick the type of plant — tree or shrub, etcetera — and pick what part of the plant is useful. A handful of images and possible matches will appear on the screen.

All are aimed to identify the edible in front of the app holder’s face. A very modern take on the centuries old task of foraging.

There’s even a section that shows pictures of what look like edible plants but are definitely not. 

Brill has never made a wrong foraging move, although once two reporters ate some bad deli food before coming on a tour years ago.

“Five minutes later it would have been blamed on the foraging,” Brill said with a laugh, never missing an opportunity to make a slightly awkward but endearing joke.

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  • bob posted at 12:04 am on Sun, Apr 21, 2013.

    bob Posts: 1

    Great article, fascinating guy!

  • wildmansteve posted at 7:13 pm on Sat, Apr 20, 2013.

    wildmansteve Posts: 1

    Thank you so much for the excellent coverage, Josey!