“Come on over everyone! There’s something you’ve all been itching to learn about!”
A wry smile formed on the guide’s face as he proceeded to describe the defining characteristics of poison ivy. Season by season the plant changes: shiny red leaves in the Spring give way to beautiful, but dangerous flowers at the end of May. This plant is one to avoid due to the trademark rash it elicits, but unlike the infamous “leaves of three,” everything else on display during “Wildman” Steve Brill’s foraging tour of New York City’s Central Park was edible, medicinal and, like our tour guide himself, wild. Brill leads weekly walking tours for all ages in parks not only in Manhattan, but also across the State, in Connecticut and, occasionally, in Huntingdon Valley, just outside of Philadelphia. When he began leading guided excursions in 1982, the then-clean shaven Brill didn’t quite fit the “Wildman” image. Like the plants and animals on his tours, Brill says, he adapted to his environment over time, growing a beard and adding a safari hat. An internal frame backpack and zip-off khaki pants complete the look, but Brill is more than just a showman, albeit a talented one famous for gaining pseudo-celebrity status after a 1986 run-in with the law. Combining his explorer’s ensemble with a zealous scientific curiosity, culinary expertise and a charmingly dad-like sense of humor, the tours blend together the varied sides of Steve, leaving groups with a snapshot of “Wildman,” Brill’s not-so-alter ego.
At each stop on the four-hour tours — whether eating leaves, picking berries or digging for roots — Wildman effortlessly weaves together the identifying characteristics, various uses, history and seasonal variations of each plant. Take, for example, the common plantain, found in many meadows and grassy lawns. The plant’s green leaves spread out in a circle from a central point where a leafless flower spike, which blooms in the early summer and fall, shoots up 6 or 8 inches. Its poultice, juice from the leaves, is one of the best remedies for skin irritation, such as scrapes, cuts, burns, mosquito bites, bee stings or poison ivy rashes. It acts as nature’s bandage and, according to Wildman, may have even played a role in the development of the Band-Aid brand and subsequent formation of Johnson & Johnson.
For Wildman, the purpose of foraging is less about surviving the elements. Instead, “it’s about getting in touch with health, wellness and nutrition.” In addition to its topical benefits, the common plantain can be coated with a wild garlic spread and roasted to make crisp, tasty veggie chips (see both recipes below). To the average park visitor it’s not obvious that you could, or would want to, eat the plantain and, at first, it wasn’t obvious to Wildman either. The leaves look and, in raw form, taste a bit like grass, but his plantain recipe is just one example of Wildman’s successful culinary experiments. Creativity in the kitchen is just one piece of what Wildman calls his “wholesome lifestyle,” which also includes meditation, yoga and daily exercise.
His introduction to foraging happened by chance. While cycling through Central Park one day, Wildman noticed some women picking what he later learned were grape leaves, often used to prepare dolmades. On a whim, he took some home, cooked them, and was hooked. He bought the top-rated foraging books and soon realized the literature was lacking: Wild food authors could identify plants but often lacked culinary ability; conversely, professional chefs could cook but they weren’t necessarily as willing to get dirty. With one foot in the outdoors and one in the kitchen, and propelled by a lifelong scientific curiosity, Wildman pioneered the profession of the forager-chef. Starting out, he was cautious: “I went over the features in the books and in the plants over and over again before I put anything in my mouth,” he explained. But soon he incorporated new ingredients and expanded his repertoire. Applying the same methodological approach in the kitchen yielded creative results. Wildman is not a fan of coffee. His naturally energetic personality certainly makes up for the lack of caffeine, but when he stumbled across the Kentucky coffee tree, he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to innovate. The tree’s beans’ rich flavor has served as a coffee substitute dating as far back as Native American tribes and early pioneers in colonial America. After some tinkering, however, Wildman discovered the beans could be ground and used as a seasoning, perfect for chocolate truffles, as our tour group found out: Pictures and descriptions of these and over 200 other plants, along with their various uses and more than 800 vegan recipes, can be found on his iOS/Android app, “Wild Edibles Forage.” This treasure trove of knowledge has been gleaned from 33 years of leading tours, but even the app can’t beat in-person learning from the master. Despite backpacking throughout New York State and having read some of Wildman’s books on foraging, Mike Rickicki was more than impressed by the tour. “You can’t get this stuff from a book,” he said, “The way he manipulates the plants and shows you the relevant characteristics only comes from years of experience.” The rest of our tour group, most of whom did not have Rickicki’s background in the outdoors, seemed to share his interest. Three hours into the tour, with the 90-plus degree heat withering energy levels, Wildman subtly switched tactics. Instead of explaining, he began asking. “We saw this before, what is this plant?” “How can you tell?” “What does this taste like?” The tour became even more interactive. Seemingly revitalized, more than a few eager adults began to pipe up, pointing out poor man’s pepper and munching on wood sorrel, both of which we’d seen earlier in the afternoon.
Watching a group learn in just a few hours was not a surprise for Wildman. “Intrinsically,” he told a few of us, “there’s no difference between recognizing lamb’s quarters in the field or a tomato in the supermarket.” For Wildman, it’s all about exposure and contact. “The more you are exposed to nature, the more you enjoy it, the more you make connections with the ecosystem.”
Meghan Maze, from New York City, was on her second Wildman tour. She was so enthused after her first in Prospect Park that she returned on her own and picked lamb’s quarters to put in a Thai stir fry, sassafras for homemade root beer, and added roasted plantain chips to finish off a meal for her family. They loved it. She went on a similar tour in Santa Cruz, C.A., she recalled, but didn’t learn much. “It’s cool to mix the science with foraging,” she said, “It encouraged me to go home and research the plants, recipes and their medicinal uses.”
“You can’t be a forager without being a conservationist,” Wildman told me. The sentiment hovers just beneath the surface of Wildman’s words and throughout the tour. For the most part, the plants chosen were invasive species, sure to survive visits from amateur foragers, and Wildman made sure to advise our group to leave the ground exactly as we found it when digging for the occasional root. His deep care for nature is clear, but he seems to reserve a special note of admiration for talking about his 11-year-old daughter, Violet, and the next generation. “It’s great to have the kids [on the tour] and to see them excited about it. It’s their environment and their future.”Tours teach the basics of identifying local plants and tips for do-it-yourself recipes, but more than anything, they share a piece of the passionate connection Wildman has for an organic lifestyle and his environment, our environment. “The power of nature to excite people goes back well before our time” he reminisces, “I’m just trying to facilitate that.”