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By Catherine Shu

“WILDMAN” STEVE BRILL says that he turned to foraging out of desperation.

“I was hungry and there was nothing in the cupboard,” he joked. In reality, he had been bicycling in a park when he happened upon some Greek women in black traditional dress searching among the foliage. He asked the women what they were doing, and they replied that they were picking grape leaves. Inspired, Brill followed suit, made some delicious stuffed grape leaves that afternoon, and became a dedicated gatherer of wild, edible plants.

For the past 23 years, Brill has led foraging tours in New York’s parks from early March to early December. His clientele take their pick of parks ranging from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan to Leatherstocking Trail further upstate.

But Brill is perhaps best known for his popular tours of Central Park. Every other week, a dozen or so nature lovers hand over $10 each for four hours of guided foraging, during which Brill turns Central Park into one big salad bar.

“I was hungry and there was nothing in the cupboard.”
—Steve Brill, forager

During a recent tour in early spring, Brill and his gang of wild foodies met at 103rd Street and Central Park West. By the time the tour ended near the Museum of Natural History at 81st Street, everyone had sampled the tangy garlic mustard (perfect for pasta), the redbud tree’s delicately-flavored blossoms, the lemony leaves of sheep’s sorrel and the refreshingly light, cucumber-like roots of the cattails that line Central Park’s ponds.

Along the way, Brill entertained the group with “the Brillophone,” which can only be described as a combination percussion/wind instrument that Brill constructs using only his hands and mouth. He carried on a stream of corny (or in this case, chickweedy) jokes. While tugging on a root, Brill cautioned, “Don’t tell the animal rights activists that I’m pulling on a cat tail!”

Mostly self-taught, Brill says that he learned about edible plants by reading books. He also took a course on seashore plants at the Museum of Natural History, studied plants at the New York Botanical Garden and carefully scrutinized the microscopic features of fungi. Throughout the tour, Brill emphasized “careful observation” while foraging. Many plants look alike, and sometimes only a stripe or extra petal distinguishes edible species from dangerous ones.

Tourists were also reminded to treat the park gently by harvesting only from abundant growths of plants and gently patting down soil after roots are dug up. But city officials were once alarmed by Brill’s chowing on Central Park. In 1986, two undercover park rangers joined one of Brill’s tours. When he picked a dandelion, they slapped handcuffs on him. The charge: criminal mischief.

Then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern did not want Brill to charge people money to pick wild plants and “eat our parks.” Brill went on the offensive after his arrest. He served “Five Borough Salad” to the press on the courthouse steps and appeared on TV with David Letterman. Stern eventually negotiated with Brill, and offered him a job as a parks naturalist, which Brill took for the next four years.

Brill worked as a caterer before he became a forager, and he has authored several books of wild plant recipes. Before eating anything, he says, foragers should identify everything with 100-percent certainty and make sure that it grew at least 50 feet away from heavy traffic.

The benefits of snacking in the wild, Brill said, are that wild plants are free from over-cultivation. Each bush or tree has its own particular flavor. And, of course, it’s all chemical-free. “I grew up on junk food,” said Brill, who is also a devout vegan, “Wild plants are a lot healthier than store-bought food with chemicals.”
AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Watch and listen to “Wildman” as he forages Central Park.
MAP: The Ramble
MAP: Elva Ramirez
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Quick facts
“Wildman” has led foraging tours for 23 years.
Four hours of guided foraging costs $10.
  The “Wildman” Web site
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