By Kevin zimmerman
Kew Gardens native “Wildman” Steve Brill knew when the NYPD slapped handcuffs onto his wrists his days of urban foraging in obscurity were over.
It was 1986, and Brill was arrested for eating dandelions in a city park. The media jumped on the story and followed the Parks Department’s lawsuit as it wound its way through the courts.
“The press just ate it up,” Brill said. “But then the charges were dropped and the Parks Department hired me to lead tours.”
On Sunday Brill returns to Queens with his hunt for edible wild plants and herbs in Forest Park. Brill shows people how to recognize which greenery growing throughout the city’s parks is OK to eat and which ones to avoid.
As he leads groups throughout these extremely open-air markets, Brill sprinkles tidbits of mythology, history and science into his talks. He also incorporates photographs of plants in the various stages of growth throughout the year. Tours include tastes during the walk and end with a freshly gathered lunch.
“We give out samples of what we find,” said Brill. “And usually people are still alive at the end of the tour.”
Brill came to his culinary career quite honestly — he was hungry. One day he wandered into the kitchen and grabbed a box of oatmeal and cooked up a batch. As Brill waited for his snack to finish, he noticed an offer on the package for a free oatmeal recipe pamphlet. Once he received the booklet, he tackled the recipes and was hungry for more. This led to library visits and the cookbook sections to round out his cooking knowledge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“At that time I was going to ethnic stores to look at the (food) stuff and ask what it was,” Brill said. “It was all Greek to me.”
Greece also played a role in opening the next chapter in Brill’s edible education. He was taking a bicycle ride through Cunningham Park and noticed a group of older Greek women picking plants. After stopping to ask what they were doing, Brill was sent home with a sample of fox grape leaves.
“Then I was hooked,” said Brill. “I started noticing berries and wanted to know about them. So, I started getting foraging books and learning whatever I could. Then I thought ‘other people might enjoy doing this as well.’”
Tourgoers will see and sample a variety of plants in Forest Park, Brill said. He expects to encounter Sweet Cicely, a root with a black licorice flavor; Burdock, a detoxifying root with hints of potato and artichoke; garlic mustard; and Japanese knotweed, which is related to rhubarb.
“There really is a need to what we will be doing,” he said. “It’s important to harvest plants that are sustainable and to let people know how to use them for food and home remedies.”
The four-hour walking tour begins at 11:45 a.m. Sunday, April 21, Meet at the stone wall at Union Turnpike and Park Lane, near the Parks Department’s Overlook building. There is a $20 suggested donation. Call (914) 835-2153 at least 24 hours ahead to reserve a place.
Reach news editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (718) 260-4541.