Eating Wild Weeds with 'Wildman' Steve Brill, Forager and Punk Naturalist
For the last 35 years, the self-taught forager, tour guide, and author has been bringing people into the woods to show them food they can easily find in the wild to eat or cook. "The whole world is my garden," Wildman Steve says.
I felt a little alarmed as I watched a guy wearing a pith helmet and a pickaxe pop a yellow dandelion into his mouth. I'm pretty sure my mom told me they were poisonous when I was a kid. A few minutes after swallowing, he showed no sign of vomiting plant matter or dying, so when he picked another from the ground and asked me to try it, I couldn't help but accept. It didn't taste bad—the texture reminded me of a brussel sprout with a surprisingly mild flavor.
On a cold Saturday morning in Connecticut, a group of ten bundled-up people gathered to listen to "Wildman" Steve Brill talk about weeds. For the last 35 years, the self-taught forager, tour guide, and author has been bringing people into fields, parks, and even onto roadsides all over New England to show them food they can easily find in the wild to eat or cook. Though he doesn't have a college degree in botany, environmental studies, or ecology, the outsider naturalist bills himself as "America's go-to guy for foraging." He was once arrested in Central Park for eating a dandelion in front of undercover park rangers, a story he loves to retell and one that, he said, made him famous. "Before that, I was an unknown. I think it must have been a slow news day because every TV station picked the story up."
"There are tons of herbs, berries, greens, mushrooms nuts, seeds, and roots growing all around us," Wildman Brill told me at one point during the tour. "People don't know what they are, so I teach them how to identify, collect, and cook them.
He thinks foraging is important to help people connect with nature, understand the food they eat, and make sustainable, environmentally-friendly decisions. "This is no different than going to a supermarket and noticing a carrot or a tomato—foraging just isn't part of our culture. So I teach people what wild plants they can use, how to protect themselves from eating the wrong plants, how foraging fits into life, and anything else I've been able to pick up about plants," Wildman Brill said. "Also," he added, "how it lowers your grocery bills."
He's not a survivalist or a doomsdayer. Instead, he's a realist with a passion for understanding the natural world, a knowledge he thinks more people could benefit from. When I asked why more people don't know that you can eat widely available plants such as dandelions, he popped another one into his mouth and answered, "because there isn't any plastic packaging and there aren't any commercials on TV; there is no dandelion marketing campaign."
After swallowing the weed, Wildman Brill added that he thinks the best organic food is found growing wild. "The stuff you buy in the health food store has been genetically modified by conventional breeding to make the plants more durable. They are nicer looking, but they don't have the flavor that the corresponding wild foods have," he said as he handed another dandelion to a tour-goer, adding, "This bud's for you."
He pointed out daylily stalks and asked us each to take a bite and told us how we can prepare them at home. He pulled out a container of daylily stalks that he roasted at home and lets us try them. Wildman Brill mentioned that you can also eat the plant's tubers, which taste a little like turnips. He suggested roasting them with herbs and oil and serving them like a baked potato. "It's not something anyone would turnip their nose at," he concludes with one of the many bad jokes he's known for. Among the other edible things we found on our tour were Garlic Mustard, Dandelions, Violets, Cattails, Wild Carrot, Sweet Oak, Bitter Dock, Wild Lettuce, Spice Bush, and Field Garlic.
During the rest of the three-hour tour, neophyte foragers collected bags full of greens, tubers, and flowers for eating or planting later at home. When people sign up for tours, they are told to bring plastic or paper bags for collecting food and pens to mark the bags. Every few feet, Wildman Brill stopped and pointed out another plant, adding puns and jokes whenever he could. The tour-goers ate it up, both literally and figuratively.
Wildman Brill has talents beyond just foraging. He's also an artist. When I went to interview him a few weeks later, he showed me the mushroom sculptures and plant drawings he uses to illustrate his finds. The art, hand-drawn illustrations worthy of vintage botany books, can be seen in his books and through an app he created that offers an on-the-go foraging guide with information on how to identify and properly eat over 250 common plants available around the country in different regions, climates, and seasons.
"I got into this because I was hungry and I was into health, cooking, and nutrition. When I discovered there were wild plants you could eat, I started teaching those to myself," he said.
His first discovery came when he was riding his bike through a park in his native Queens in the 70s. He saw a group of orthodox Greek women collecting plants. He stopped to ask them what they were doing but didn't understand a word they were saying. "It was all Greek to me but they sent me home with a bag of the grape leaves they were picking. I stuffed them and cooked them and they were delicious. After that, I had to know more about these foods growing in the wild.
"I started getting books. The bad thing was that the books weren't very good, which made it hard to learn and to use what I learned. It was good because I saw big opportunities to write about the plants once I knew them," he told me. He learned via reading and a whole lot of trial-and-error, though he's never been sick from something he ate in the woods. "I'm very careful. I've sometimes waited several decades before I've eaten a plant I've seen in the woods."
His favorite foraged food is the Wild Common Violet, after which his daughter and foraging partner is named. His favorite violet recipe is his Violet Saag Paneer, an Indian curry that replaces spinach with violets and paneer with a tofu-based equivalent. "I think I'm just scratching the surface of the culinary possibilities of wild foods." He gets about half of his food from foraging, the rest is bought at the store.
"My thing is gourmet wild foods, no reason for me to go without my brown rice, lentils, and spices," he clarified.
He avoids all processed foods and a typical day's diet for him might include only two meals. On the day we met, he'd had brown rice with Japanese Knotwood for lunch, and salad with a mixture of foraged and store-bought greens with a side of fruit salad for dinner. He doesn't garden either. "The whole world is my garden. There is always something in season and new to find," he said.
When asked if there are others out there who do what he does, he answered, in typical Wildman style, "Yes, all the animals in the woods."
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