Brooklyn Courrier Lifestyles
Arts and Leisure
June 17, 2002
By Christie Goodman
Turkey Reading Cookbook

Toss some cattail shoots; young greenbrier leaves, shoots and tendrils; violet leaves and flowers; curly (yellow) dock leaves; ramp leaves; sheep sorrel leaves; dandelion flowers and black locust flowers into a bowl and what do you get? A five-borough salad.

"Wildman" Steve Brill’s newest book, "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook," is hot off the presses with more than 500 delicious recipes.

Most famous for being arrested in Central Park in 1986 by undercover park rangers for eating a dandelion, Brill served the five-borough salad to press and passersby on the steps of Manhattan Criminal Courthouse.

Not only did they eat the salad, but they gobbled up the story as well.

"I was hungry and confronted with a container of oatmeal," said Brill as he described his beginnings.

He followed the recipe on the side of the box for cookies and they tasted good when they came out of the oven. He began to try other recipes and checking cookbooks out of the local library.

"I was exploring cooking while bringing in concepts of health and nutrition, when I happened upon some Greek women in [Hollis] Queens picking something in the woods," said Brill.

The women stopped long enough to explain to the budding "wildman" that they were picking fresh grape leaves. Brill gathered some of his own, went straight home and made stuffed grape leaves.

"I began studying edible wild plants seriously," said Brill.

He began to pick up folklore, nutrition, mythology and everything related to wild plants.

It was in 1982 when the nickname "Wildman" came to him while he was meditating. Brill, a life-long jazz lover, took Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong’s "The Wild Man Blues" to heart.

Four years later, and four years since he began giving his wildly edible tours of the city’s parks, Brill was arrested. "It took a long time for them to catch me," snickered the "Wildman."

Since he had eaten all of the evidence, the charges of criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park were dropped.

Then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern dodged the pressing media and hired Brill to lead the very same tours as a Parks Naturalist for four years.

Brill went freelance, doing birthday parties, private tours, school group tours and more after that.

"One of the places I always take people is by lake in Prospect Park," said Brill. The best patch of curly (yellow) dock can be found in Brooklyn, by the lake.

Curly (yellow) dock is a leafy vegetable that is very flavorful and goes well with many of Brill's dishes.

In his tours through all of New York City’s parks, Brill teaches people "how to recognize the wild plants that make up the backbone of our ecosystem—the renewable sources."

Many of the hints and guidelines he tells Girl and Boy Scouts, day camps, garden clubs or in museum and library lectures can be found in his first book, "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places."

After one tour, most people know how to make wild salads and sassafras and have enough foraged goods to cure mosquito bites and cook a few recipes of their very own.

Brill went through many dates and recipes before leading a singles tour for a now defunct Veggie Singles News in Central Park twelve years after his arrest.

Leslie-Anne Skolnik attended the tour. Brill fell wildly in love.

"Had I known I would have paid them!" joked Brill. Although there are books on cooking with wild foods, Brill found them to boil all of the wonderful natural nutritional value out of them.

"They are very simple, like taking mixed berries and mixing them with sugar and heavy cream or fried greens with bacon fat," said Brill. "I use more of a chef's approach."

Brill matches flavor with nutrition, texture and appearance—all of the elements that a chef would use to develop his recipe concepts.

"Instead of using milk and cream and egg yolks in a blender for ice cream, I will use for the base of the ice cream soy milk, silken tofu, raw cashews (very important part of the thickness and creaminess) and a food supplement called lecithin granules made from soy beans," explained Brill.

There is no saturated fat or cholesterol in the base of his ice cream.

For the sweetness, Brill uses liquid stevia, which can be found in health food stores, along with vegetable glycerin and a dash of salt.

"Then I’ll put in everything from black locust blossom (vanilla like in flavor), black walnut and spicebush berries," said Brill.

The black locust blossom, black walnut and spicebush berries can all be found in Prospect Park.

"Spicebush berries are all over Prospect Park and they are incredibly delicious," said Brill. "I have to pry kids away with a crowbar to go to the next plant."

Brill also has a large focus on vegan recipes, using lots of dairy analogs, dairy-free cheeses and butter sauces.

He even has a recipe for an omelet without breaking an egg.

"They work and taste really, really good," said Brill. "People who are vegetarians don’t have to give up what they love."

Brill provides substitutes for many commercial ingredients and vice versa.

A small fraction of these plants were cultivated," said Brill. "They just want to sell the most profitable crops."

One of the most blatant examples are apples, said Brill.

"There is a variety of apples you get in the parks and are just not there commercially," said Brill. "I like to take people in the other direction and show them other plants our ancestors never brought into cultivation."

As any gardener knows, the faster you pick weeds, the faster they grow back. Therefore, many of his ingredients will never be lost, endangered or genetically modified or mutated.

"Some top world-class chefs are using a few of these things in restaurants that the average man cannot afford," said. "If the chefs were not overworked they would all be on my tours."

Although Brill has interviews all over the country for all sorts of news, cooking and vegetarian agencies, he still has time to conduct his tours for a mere $10 donation.

The average tour is not only educational and tasty, but entertaining. Brill likes to play music, tell jokes and stories, in addition to the science behind the plants.

"It is a lot of fun," he said.

"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook—A Forager’s Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods" is available at all major bookstores.
For more information on the "Wildman," his books or his tours, go online at wildmanstevebrill.com or email him at wildmansteve@ bigfoot.com.