“Wildman” Steve Brill on the Foraging Debate

“Wildman” Steve Brill has been teaching New Yorkers how to forage for plants, mushrooms, berries and herbs in the city’s urban wilds for almost three decades.

When he started, he was lucky to get one or two people on a tour. But interest in foraging in New York City has quietly grown in recent years, and now Brill’s tours regularly draw 30 to 40—and sometimes as many as 60—people.

New York City parks officials are less than thrilled about the increase in foraging. Earlier this summer, they began chasing foragers out of parks and handing out summonses. Reports of poaching and vandalism in Kissena Park and allegations of ecological damage in other city parks have added fuel to the current foraging debate.

Brill discussed the controversy in a recent Q&A with City Spoonful.

City Spoonful: How did you get into foraging?
“Wildman” Steve Brill: I got interested in cooking. I began getting cookbooks from the public library and exploring ethnic ingredients in stores inQueens. I was very interested in natural foods and cooking using alternative ingredients.

I happened to be bicycling one day past Cunningham Park in Queens, and there were these Greek women picking something in the woods, and I asked them what they were doing. They managed to convey that they were picking grape leaves.

I started getting books written by botanists and began doing my own experiments in the kitchen with these [foraged] plants.

What are some of the wild edibles that are easy to find in city parks?
You start with a dozen or so very common, renewable species: lamb’s quarters, field garlic, poor man’s pepper, common plantain, chickweed, etc.

I have an app called Wild Edibles, and it has over 160 plants that people can use renewably. There’s also a lite version with 20 common lawn plants, which is free.

Do you sustain yourself solely by foraging?
No, [foraging is] too labor-intensive. That would be too hard to do. I’m not a survivalist—I come at this as a foodie and a scientist.

I supplement my diet with foraging. I guess about 10 percent of my food comes from foraging, but that’s probably 50 percent of my vitamins. I get all my mushrooms, some roots, some greens, some berries, some nuts and some wonderful culinary seasonings in the wild.

What are the risks involved in foraging? How difficult is it to avoid poisonous or polluted plants?
The important concept is don’t kill yourself. There are deadly plants, and you have to have knowledge. The [foragers] who don’t know what they’re doing pretty quickly get weeded out by natural selection—they’ll be in the emergency room with vomiting and diarrhea. [Foraging] doesn’t lend itself long-term to ignorance.

You don’t want to pick anything within 50 feet of heavy traffic or along the railroad right-of-ways where they spray [pesticides].

How long does it take to learn what you need to know to forage safely?
I’m still learning. Just last year, I pointed out an obscure Chinese medicinal tree called prickly ash, and a foodie on my tour said, “Oh, that’s also Sichuan pepper.” I’ve known this tree for 30 years, and I did not know it was Sichuan pepper.

Why do you think foraging has become so popular?
The question is, why didn’t it become so popular 30 years ago? If you ever taste these foods, they are incredibly tasty, which is what attracts all the [food] bloggers. This stuff is free, it’s renewable, and there’s zero environmental impact if you know what you’re doing. And these foods have way more nutrients than commercial food.

Back in 1986 you were arrested for foraging, but the charges were dropped. What happened? 
That got me so much national publicity that they dropped the charges and hired me to lead the same tours that I was leading when I was arrested. So I taught foraging for four years [for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation]. Now, after 25 years, they’ve turned around again.

Does foraging threaten park ecosystems? How is what you do different from what we’ve read about lately (for example, recent reports of poaching in Kissena Park)?
That’s not foraging—that’s poaching. There’s no reason to equate that with foraging.

We have been picking the same dandelions, chickweed, garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed—which parks officials would love to destroy—in the same spot for 30 years, and they still have to come in with the mowers to cut down the weeds. You pick mulberries that have fallen to the ground, and it’s zero environmental impact.

It’s possible that there are vandals who do damage to the parks, but that’s quite different from responsible foragers. But just because there are a few bad drivers around, we shouldn’t ban driving. I don’t really know of any parks where foragers have done serious damage.

I do see a lot of destruction by deer—they eat everything. And feral cats are a big threat to chipmunks. It’s just dishonest to blame this stuff on foragers. [If you rank] all the threats to the ecosystem from one to 100, foraging doesn’t even make the list.

'Foraged Flavor' Cookbook

 Anne Noyes Saini, City Spoonful