Did you know you can make a salad out of weeds you find in Central Park? Or that there are mushrooms you can gather for free that taste just like chicken? There's plenty that you can find and eat in the city's park system and The Wildman Steve Brill is just the guy to show you where and how. Gothamist sat down to chat with New York's best known naturalist about the evils of lawns, the effects of global warming, and where to find some delectable free fruit.
How did you become The Wildman?
After I became interested in food to feed myself, I began to cook and teach cooking professionally, and explore ethnic stores for exotic ingredients and culinary concepts. At that time, I bicycled past a group of ethnic Greek women foraging in a local park. I asked them what they were doing, but it was all Greek to me! However, I came home with a bag of grape leaves, which I stuffed. They were delicious. I began to teach myself foraging, eventually becoming and expert and leading tours. The name “Wildman” came to me during Transcendental Meditation.
What did you use to teach yourself foraging?
I used books, lots of experimentation, and relentless experimentation in the kitchen once I was sure of my identifications.
Was it difficult, at first, to convince people to go on the tours?
Yes, sometimes 1 or 2 people would sign up. That all changed after I was arrested.
Have your ever accidentally eaten something that wasn't as tasty as you imagined or made you sick?
Yes, I grew up on junk food. And an error in a field guide had my try dehydrated skunk cabbage which made my tongue sting for an hour.
How do the wild plants compare to their store bought counterparts?
The wild American persimmons that grow in Central and Prospect Parks are way sweeter and tastier than the commercial Asian persimmons of supermarkets.
What's one of your favorite spots in Central Park?
The wild persimmon trees north of the boathouse.
Have you ever found any lost items or money during your tours?
I've actually never found someone's lost items on my tours, probably because I'm busy looking for plants and mushrooms.
What is your opinion on lawns?
Lawns are unnatural, maintained with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that run off unto the surrounding ecosystems and kill nearly everything. The white-footed mouse rebounds most quickly, and finds all its predators and competitors dead. This animal provides Lyme disease bacteria for deer ticks, accounting for the epidemic of this disease. This is just 1 of the many evils of ecocidal lawns. Besides killing nearly everything, they also alter hydrology, the flow of water through the ecosystem.
Have you noticed any effects of global warming on the park?
The times plants first come up, and when they disappear at the end of the growing season, as well as fruiting times, have changed markedly.
What are some of your most memorable tour and foraging experiences in Central Park?
Getting arrested. Meeting my wife on a tour. Not being able to lead a large group out of the park during an unpredicted torrential rainstorm when too much water was running down my glasses for me to see. Finding 60 lbs. of gourmet wine-cap stropharia mushrooms. Finding a chokecherry tree for the first time south of the Adirondacks in the Northern Woods just this year.
Your strangest NYC moment must be when you were arrested . How did it go down?
Undercover park rangers infiltrated one of my tours and put me in handcuffs for eating a dandelion in Central Park. I got so much publicity that the Parks Dept. dropped the charges and hired me to lead the same tours I was busted for, from 1986 to 1990. I left when the administration changed.
What is your current relationship with the Parks Department?
They usually leave me alone, but don’t officially allow foraging, in fear of frivolous lawsuits.
How would you rate their performance?
Except for too many fences in Central Park, they’re doing a good job maintaining the many park ecosystems.
Anything you'd like to see them do?
Take down the fences and encourage hands-on learning opportunities with renewable plants, rocks and minerals, insects and invertebrates, etc.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
I admire all the unsung schoolteachers who are bucking the oppressive bureaucratic fashion of teaching for test scores and suppressing all other fields of learning.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
Get rid of the Board of Ed, bring outdoor education into the schools, make the city more bicycle-friendly, and reform public transportation.
What's your idea of a perfect day of recreation in New York?
My last tour of Central Park when we couldn’t stop finding huge, gourmet wild blackberries everywhere!
If one of our readers, inspired by this interview, decides to pick up a field guy and go foraging in Central Park on their own and is approached by a park ranger, what should they say?
"This is a weed your colleagues are removing and collecting it isn't harming the environment."