A dining experience that begins with a spring salad followed by jumbo jambalaya and ends in a sweet bliss of black raspberry ice cream. Sounds lovely, but what if the star ingredients are foraged from New York City parks?
That is exactly what 74-year-old environmentalist and self-taught forager "Wildman" Steve Brill is cooking and taking residents on an organic, urban culinary journey living off the land.
Brill travels through the boroughs, Connecticut and Long Island to areas like Prospect Park, Inwood Hill Park, Sheldrake Lake and Hempstead Lake State Park on the hunt for nature's free bounty.
"Wild foods are incredibly delicious. They are very nutritious, as well. From a culinary point of view, they are unexplored and totally renewable," Brill told NBC New York in an interview before a guided tour kicked off.
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On a sunny Saturday in March, Brill embarked on one of his many four-hour expeditions in Central Park with a collection of around 30 New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds. This time the group gathered on the Upper West Side walking towards Harlem.
Of the various edible plants plucked from the ground were delicacies like garlic mustard, Poor Man's Pepper, violet leaves, bitter dock greens and Burdock root. Summer and fall may be more of mushroom season, but enoki mushrooms, tree ears and oyster mushrooms could be spotted.
Foraging is prohibited in New York State parks, but this vegan leads excursions through public areas to educate people that savory plants and mushrooms are hidden treasures often passed by on neighborhood walks or daily commutes.
The wild plants expert has been foraging for over 40 years and even encountered a run-in with the law. On March 29, 1986, Brill was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park.
"We had undercover agents on my tour. They were plants, but not the kind I was looking for," said Brill who continued, "At the end of the tour, I ate the dandelion, and the male ranger ducked behind the tree with a hidden walkie-talkee."
The NYC Park rangers placed handcuffs on Brill who was charged with criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park. According to Brill, the city "turned a new leaf" by dropping the charge and hiring him to lead the same tours under NYC Mayor Ed Koch's administration.
Since then, the longtime naturalist has been crafting how-to forage guides, children's publications, and cookbooks sharing his expertise and trial-and-error.
One of the biggest misconceptions he believes about foraging is the idea of poisoning, which people should proceed with the utmost caution, but identifying the species is key. He suggests for any foraging beginners start slow, taking small bites the first time to avoid any potential allergies or side-effects.
"It's a gateway drug into conservation. They learn to identify and use plants, become more comfortable in the environment, and work for a more sustainable environment" said Brill.