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I had seen the announcements for his tours in the back of local newspapers like The Village Voice for years and had subconsciously filed the idea of going in my head.On September 4th, my day had come. I would finally meet the mysterious "Wildman" Steve Brill (that's him in the blue t-shirt) who has been leading foraging tours in New York State parks for over 15 years. I managed waking up early enough to get uptown by 11:45 on a Saturday morning. Looking around for the group, I tried to pick out the freak show I imagined would be my foraging companions. Aside from the occasional deluxe hippie, the tour group was pretty cool; coolest of all being our fearless leader, the aforementioned "Wildman."

Steve Brill's career in natural foods began in the '70's when he began cheffing at a hotel in Upstate New York. He then taught natural foods cooking classes at a yoga studio in Queens (his hometown) and eventually co-founded Natural Gourmet Caterers. He became interested in foraging for wild foods when he discovered a group of Greek women picking wild grape leaves in a Queens park in May of 1979. He began leading tours to groups in 1982, advertising in local papers to meet at various park locations. Four years later, he actually got arrested in a much-publicized sting operation involving undercover park rangers posing as an interested couple along on one of his then unofficial tours.

Fortunately for Mr. Brill, and for New York City in general, his vast knowledge and enthusiasm won over the Parks' Commissioner who signed Brill on as an educator through the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. This affiliation fizzled out in 1990 when a new Parks regime came into power. That has not, however, stopped the Wildman. He continues giving tours to interested adults and numerous New York City schoolchildren, sharing fun facts and anecdotes along with a positive message about caring for the environment and science in general.

Brill has been recognized by many area chefs who, to his surprise, started knocking on his door a few years ago as the search for new fresh and organic products was on the rise. The media has embraced him not only for his scuffle with the law but to learn more about his programs. He has been featured on numerous tv programs, such as The Today Show, Latenight with David Letterman and the TV Food Network (Seinfeld even developed a character out of his bush-hat wearing persona). He has also been the focus of many print articles, appearing in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and Japanese Cosmopolitan.

The tours are generally four hours long and are held in all 5 boroughs as well as upstate and on Long Island. One particular tour is given at Honey Locust Farms, where Chef Jean-Georges Vongeritchen (Jean-Georges, Vong, JoJo, Mercer Kitchen, etc,) has been ordering his wild foods from. It seemed a bit strange to eat the food at first (I think "Hell no" were the words my partner used when asked if we should really eat plants growing in Central Park). But after one taste of the purple wisteria blossom by the entrance to the park on 72nd Street, I was most definitely won over. Soon our little bags and yogurt containers were filling up with goodies. All the foods growing in the park are essentially organic and some are wild and therefore rare varieties of plants, unavailable, even at your local greenmarket.

We collected tart and tiny, grapefruit flavored wild black cherries that inspired another tour guest, a chef at the British Embassy, to serve a lamb covered with a wild black cherry-water mint jam (this was in 1994). Other booty included garlic chive bulbs (later tossed into an omelet) and spice bush berries. An heirloom apple tree got a good shake which got us a good stare from Saturday afternoon picnic-ers. The plum-sized apples were transformed into a pie by our industrious friend, Monica. Each product had many gourmet possibilities, many suggested by Brill. He is so full of great recipe ideas that he is compiling them into a cookbook that should be coming out next year. He has already written the intensely researched Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not-So Wild Places (Hearst Books). Check out his books and tours, they are a good way to get a breath of fresh air in the middle of the City, and more importantly, information to last you weeks of Blair Witch-type camping mishaps.

Wildman's tour schedule for 1999

  • Nov. 6, Randall's Island, Manhattan
  • Nov. 7, Central Park, Manhattan
  • Nov. 13, Prospect Park, Brooklyn
  • Nov. 14, Cunningham Park, Queens
  • Nov. 20, Kissena Park, Queens
  • Nov. 21, Central Park, Manhattan
  • Nov. 26, Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan
  • Nov. 27, Forest Park, Queens
  • Nov. 28, Prospect Park, Brooklyn
  • Dec. 4, Alley Pond Park, Marsh, Queens
  • Dec. 5, Central Park, Manhattan

Call (718) 291-6825 at least 24 hours in advance to reserve a place on the tour, meeting information and travel directions. The suggested donation is $10 ($5 for children). For more details, Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to "Wildman" Steve Brill, 143-25 84th Drive, Suite 6C, Jamaica, NY 11435, or email wildmansteve@bigfoot.com.

 

©1999 Whet Media