The News Agency of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness
Wild Food: Foraging Ahead Into the 21st Century
By: Wildman Steve Brill
for Organica Magazin on May 21, 2011
Wild berries in New York`s Central Park
Many of us strive for a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle that goes beyond the materialistic, conventional norm, incorporating whole foods, physical fitness, spiritual practices and more into our daily activities. I gradually began on such a path in the mid-1970s, taking up healthful cooking, Transcendental Meditation, Hatha Yoga, aerobic exercise, and eventually, environmentalism. But I'd like to share a more unusual practice of which you may be unaware-one that changed my life as much as anything I've tried: foraging.
It turns out urban, suburban and rural ecosystems are loaded with unnoticed wild foods and herbs. Overlooked as "weeds," these are the same shoots, greens, roots, fruits, berries and flowers that nourished and healed our ancestors for centuries. You can gradually learn to recognize them, harvest them ecologically and safely, and have fun using them to improve your meals and health.
My epiphany occurred in May of 1980 while I was bicycling through Queens, NY, for exercise. I was stopped in my tracks after spotting a group of Greek women, garbed in traditional black, collecting food in the wooded section of a local park.
Four years earlier, I had taught myself how to cook with cookbooks from the library, and had begun using the unconventional ingredients from health food stores that most cookbook writers shun to make tasty, healthful versions of dishes that are usually loaded with refined flour, white sugar or animal products. And I'd also been experimenting with unusual vegetarian ingredients from ethnic stores.
When I asked the traditional foragers what were collecting, I couldn't understand a word of their reply. It was all Greek to me! However, I came home with a bag full of wild grape leaves. Because at the time all commercial grape leaves were laden with preservatives, this was my first opportunity to experiment with this exotic food, and the stuffed grape leaf recipe I came up with was a complete success. Furthermore, when I returned to the park in the fall, all the trees were festooned with clusters of delicious, organic wild grapes that turned out to be fox grapes, the wild forerunner of Concord grapes.
I was hooked! There were no foraging teachers in my region, but using field guides, I slowly uncovered a cornucopia of wild foods. And because the books were written by botanists who didn't forage, or foragers who boiled wild greens to death or smothered everything in white flour, bacon fat or sugar, I had the opportunity to explore the full potential of wild foods for the first time.
Foraging was so much fun, I began leading tours through local parks in 1982, and by 1986 I'd attracted enough attention that the NYC Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern, decided to put a stop to my criminal activity of teaching people to eat the same weeds the Parks Dept. was mowing down by the millions. Going botanical himself, he planted 2 undercover park rangers on a tour of Central Park. The man and woman, who said they were married, fooled me completely. They never held hands or kissed, so I thought they'd been married for years.
The man paid me with marked bills, and kept photographing the specimens I was collecting. Only I was the actual specimen. At the end of the tour, after I ate the leaf of a dandelion, he radioed for reinforcements, and suddenly, every park ranger in NYC popped out from behind the bushes to surround me. They handcuffed me lest I bash them on the head with a dandelion, searched me, looking either for weeds or "weed," and hauled me off to the police station. The cops took fingerprints and mug shots, and even searched my backpack. Fortunately, I had eaten all the evidence.
I was issued a desk appearance summons charging me with criminal mischief for "removing vegetation from the park," which carried a prison term of up to one year upon conviction, and was given a date to appear in court. Then the cops committed an awful blunder: they let me go.
I went home and called every TV station, radio station, newspaper and wire service in the phone book. The next morning, on my way to the newsstand, five cops came after me. But this time they all wanted my autograph. I was on the front pages of newspapers around the county, appeared with Dan Rather on CBS Evening News that night, and ended up on major TV and radio talk shows galore.
Another mega-round of PR ensued at my arraignment, when I served "Wildman's" 5-Boro Salad to reporters and passersby on the steps of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. The media frenzy was so scathing that Commissioner Stern asked to negotiate with me, dropped all charges and, in a third flurry of media fanfare, turned over a new leaf and hired me to lead the same tours I was leading when he had me arrested! I worked as a NYC Parks Dept. naturalist for four years and went back to doing freelance work when an unfriendly administration took over and reneged on the terms of my agreement with Stern.
Nowadays, I lead public tours in parks throughout Greater New York every Saturday, Sunday and holiday, spring, summer and fall. On weekdays, I do school classes, programs and birthday parties, and work with day camps, libraries, museums, scout troops, garden clubs and other organizations. I even met my wife, Leslie, on a tour in 1998.
Read more on foraging: http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/