Change Your Diet
Foraging for Food
in Urban Parks

June 16, 1998
By Grace Bastidas

"Wildman" in Meditative Pose

He ate the evidence:
Steve "Wildman" Brill turned a crime into a career.

Photo by Grace Bastidas

How about a hearty meal composed of greenbrier leaves, burdock roots, sassafras, and cattail shoots? And then, for dessert, a tasty side of red buds and a handful of water!

Ecologist Steve Brill believes almost anyone can survive the whole summer living in Central Park just by eating the wild edible goodies this urban oasis has to offer. "Muggers would get them long before they starve to death," he says. According to Brill, our environment contains an abundance of tasty, nutritious-and free-wild herbs, roots, shoots, stalk and leaf vegetables, flowers, nuts, mushrooms, fruits, and medicinal plants (about 100 in Central Park alone). In his guide to Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, he does caution would-be foragers to "identify every plant with 100 percent certainty before you eat it" and to practice conscientious collecting by leaving enough plants behind to renew themselves through regeneration.

Bearded and bespectacled, the 49-year-old is lean and energetic. He has to be. On weekends and holidays from March to December Brill leads groups on food raids throughout the five boroughs and the Northeast. He touts the potential benefits of an organic diet. "Wild foods have more vitamins minerals, and fiber than anything else."

Known as "the Wildman" (the name came to him while meditating), Brill has been teaching people about the environment's many overlooked renewable resources since 1982. In 1986 the Queens native became the target of a sting operation that threatened to put an end to his "wild food and ecology tours." Two undercover operatives armed with surveillance cameras and marked bills infiltrated one of his tours.

The Wildman was arrested, handcuffed, and booked for criminal misdemeanor-for illegally munching on a dandelion green in the park. Luckily, "by the time they searched me I had already eaten all the evidence," says the longtime vegan. The charges were later dropped, and he was hired by the parks commissioner as a naturalist to lead the same tours he'd been arrested for. A freelancer these days, Brill seasons each four-hour tour with recipes, anecdotes, mythology, plenty of corny jokes, and the idea that food gathering can be an alternative to the 10 Items or Less lane at the supermarket. To get a schedule or reserve a spot on one of his tours (in Queens June 13, in Brooklyn June 14 and July 5, in Central Park June 20, and on Randall's Island July 4), call (718) 291-6825.