Extreme Locavores

August 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm 1 comment

©Margarida Correia. “Wildman Steve Brill,” founder of a wild food foraging business, leads wild food and ecology tours in New York City public parks. His tour on Aug. 1 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, drew 39 foragers.

Naturalist Steve Brill plucked the plumpest black cherries from the tree and popped them into his mouth one by one.  “I’d give them,” he said, “about a seven.”

A brood of 39 foragers following Brill on his four-hour tour of Prospect Park in Brooklyn descended on the tree, picking and eating the cherries or harvesting them into plastic containers.  It was the first of many wild black cherry trees the young urbanites would see.

“The more you eat them,” said Brill of the bittersweet cherries, “the more you like them.”

The foragers were half-way into the tour and had already had their fill of lambsquarters (that’s wild spinach) and other edible leafy greens.  Many carried plastic bags bulging with leaves, roots, seeds, stalks and stems of a riotous assortment of wild edible and medicinal plants.

Call them extreme locavores.  While most local food enthusiasts are happy to buy fruits and vegetables from farmers markets and local vendors, a fringe group is taking its commitment to a new level — they’re foraging in local parks and other public places.

Over the last three to five years, Brill has experienced an uptick in number of tour participants, leading about 40 people on average.  On Labor Day last year, he hosted a record 78 foragers and nature enthusiasts in Central Park.

“Except for this summer, it’s been increasing,” he wrote of tour participation in an e-mail message.

Wildrafting.net, a website for foragers, has more than 5,000 members, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. And ForageAhead, a nine-year Yahoo! e-mail group that discusses wild edible plants, animals and mushrooms, has almost 2,100 members globally.

Brill — who markets himself as “Wildman Steve Brill” and “America’s Best-Known Forager” — runs his weekend tours almost year-round, from the first weekend in March to the first in December.  He’s been leading tours in New York City and the surrounding area for more than 25 years.

Brill says it’s relatively easy to forage enough food in public parks for a family-sized group, if people go to enough locations.  Foragers can find wild foods throughout most of the year.  “The best time for roots is early spring and fall.  For fruits and berries, it’s from late spring to fall.  For nuts, it’s fall,” Brill wrote in an e-mail.  Leafy greens are best early through mid-spring, and mushrooms are at their peak late summer and fall, after days of torrential rain.

On Brill’s tour in Prospect Park in early August, several herbs and vegetables grew in abundance. In addition to lambsquarters, which grew everywhere, there was amaranth and to a lesser extent wood sorrel.  Brill led the group to a large, shady patch of Asiatic dayflower, a plant with supple leaves that the foragers gently pulled from their stems and stuffed into supermarket-size plastic bags.

“There’s no greater vegetable to put in soups,” Brill said of Asiatic dayflower.

Though challenging, even restaurants can forage enough food for some of their menu items.  “There are some seasonal plants that can be harvested in large quantity,” Brill said in an e-mail message, listing garlic, mulberries, purslane, wild carrots, dandelions, and beach plums as some of the things off the top of his head.

Wild food is far more likely, however, to be served in restaurants in less populous places.  In Finland, for example, foraged berries and mushrooms are a mainstay in most restaurants.  Finnish restaurateurs also serve wild game like moose and bear, according to Henriette Kress, a member of the ForageAhead online discussion forum.

As rare as foraged food is in New York eateries, Brill sometimes lead tours for the staff of some of the city’s best-known restaurants.  He’s worked with Pure Food and Wine, Blue Hill Restaurant, and most recently Club 21.

Still, it’s curious New Yorkers who Brill is banking on – the ones looking to feast on wild black cherries and other truly natural snacks.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. "Wildman" Steve Brill  |  August 20, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks, Margarida!

    Excellent blog, capturing what I’ve been trying to do for 28 years.

    I’d like to add that there are lots of edible wild plants and mushrooms, plus many other features, on my site, and I also work with schools, museums, nature centers, libraries, and environmental organizations, and do birthday party tours.

    Happy Foraging, everyone!

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