A group of about 20 people gathered on the northwest corner of Forest Park in Kew Gardens on a warm Saturday morning in July. The park’s playground, basketball courts and baseball fields did not interest them. They were there for something else.
They had come to eat the park.
Led by “Wildman” Steve Brill and his 15-year-old daughter, Violet, the foraging tour group prepared to taste the wild edible flora growing right under their feet, beneath their park blanket and between the cracks in their sidewalk.
Brill and his daughter promised to help the group identify plants they might normally dismiss as weeds or worse, and to share recipes that could make trips to the grocery store or a restaurant obsolete.
Brill has lead foraging tours since the ‘80s, when he was famously arrested by park police for eating a dandelion in Central Park. While the charges were eventually dropped, Brill capitalized on the absurdity of his situation and eventually took a gig with the Parks Department, leading the very tours he was arrested for.
While he no longer works with the city agency, his tours, and his lore, live on.
“He’s legendary,” said Aviv Goldgeier, an engineer and musician from Ridgewood, who had come on the tour with his girlfriend, Kristen Lawrence, an engineer and beekeeper also from Ridgewood.
The pair had joined the tour for several reasons. Goldgeier was experiencing a “weirdly intense plant identification phase” in his life, whereas Lawrence wanted to get back in touch with nature, something she’s missed since moving to the city. The couple was also looking for a solution to an unruly weed problem taking hold of their backyard.
“We can eat all our weeds now,” Lawrence said.
At the beginning of the tour, Brill laid out five books along a stone ledge outside of the park. He had written them all.
A cookbook, packed with Brill’s original foraging recipes, included entries for dishes like “Miso Soup with Sea Lettuce,” “Czech Elderberry Pancakes” and “Daylily Kimchi.”
Brill is a self-taught forager and has a near encyclopedic knowledge of the flora that slyly surrounds the city.
He grew up in Kew Gardens but lives in Westchester now.
“My heart is still in Queens though,” he said.
In addition to his recipes, Brill has also created many drawings and paintings of the wildlife he’s learned about. It’s clear that he’s obsessed, and in love.
As he led the group through an intersection in Forest Park, Brill, 70, told them that they were only blocks from the spot where his mother read him his first science book.
“And I was hooked,” he said.
Michael Sadler, the co-owner and co-creator of Republic of Booza, an ice cream shop in Williamsburg, showed up to the tour a little late. But it was OK.
This was his fourth tour with Brill.
“I’m trying to learn about wild edibles,” said Sadler. “Every time there’s new stuff.”
Sadler, who carried a notebook filled with the wisdom Brill had passed along, had come with a surprise. The day before he had found a few mushrooms and wanted to show them to Brill.
“I wanted to get the sage’s blessing before eating them,” Sadler said.
Later in the tour, Sadler, walking ahead of the group, found a patch of mushrooms hiding in the dirt.
Brill, excited by the find, informed the group that this type of mushroom, while safe to eat after cooking, will turn to ink after a while and so, must be eaten only when ripe.
“You can’t eat ink,” Brill told the group.
“Because it’s poisonous?” Goldgeier asked.
“No,” Brill said. “Because it’s like eating ink.”
While “Wildman” is the original, his daughter is the new and improved version. Just ask Brill.
“She’s definitely going to surpass me, if she hasn’t already done so,” Brill said in an interview. “She causes me problems. She finds all the plants and mushrooms faster than I do and steals all my jokes.”
The father-daughter duo worked as a pair for most of the tour but there were plenty of times when it became clear that Violet was in charge.
She would spot plants from afar, run up to them, and begin to inform the group about what they were looking at. Brill let her lead, no questions asked.
Brill began taking his daughter on foraging tours when she was only 2 months old. From a young age, she would jump out of her stroller and her make her way into the dirt, Brill said.
“It’s just a part of me,” Violet said.
By 9 years old she began to co-lead tours with her father. Now, at the age of 15, she leads tours by herself.
With plans to attend Cornell for college and to major in ornithology, the study of birds, Violet hopes to help kids follow their curiosity about the natural world, and to help adults rediscover theirs.
“You should keep the curiosity kids have throughout your life,” she said. “You really don’t need to go far to find it.”
Jessica and Danny Rivera, a couple from Kew Gardens, brought their two daughters, Samantha, 4, and Isabella, almost 2, along for the tour.
“It’s really cool to be able to get your own park in this way,” Jessica said.
While Isabella spent most of the tour inside a baby pouch strapped to her mom, Samantha walked around, engaged and excited, carrying a bag filled with the fruits of her foraging.
“I got a bag of nature,” Samantha said, holding her bag high in the air.
Violet took notice of Samantha and made sure to always give her samples of whatever plant the group had just found. They had brief conversations throughout the tour.
As the group made its way back to the starting point, Samantha stopped and pointed to the ground.
“It’s just a little coconut,” she said.
The group got close and giggled.
Samantha was wrong, but a seed had been planted.
More information about “Wildman” Steve Brill and Violet can be found here. The duo will be back in Forest Park on Sept. 15, 2019.