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New York’s “Wildman”

© Steve Brill

Steve Brill, aka “Wildman”, is a renowned Environmental Educator, Expert Cook and Published Author. A Foraging theory expert, Wildman had also produced and hosted many TV and Radio shows. He is been conducting “foraging tours” in Manhattan and throughout greater New York since the early-1980s. We are excited to post Wildman’s interview!

Interviewed by Stephen M. Thompson, Ph.D.

OpenBeast: Welcome. How did you get the title “Wildman?”

It came to me while I was practicing Transcendental Mediation in the winter of 81-82, just before I launched my public tours.

In our modern society what “Foraging” exactly mean? And how did you get into it?

Foraging consists of gathering common, renewable edible wild herbs, greens, shoots, fruits, berries, roots, nuts, seaweeds, or mushrooms. I got into it as an outgrowth of my interest in food, nutrition, and cooking. What is your tour about and what are you are trying to educate? I teach people to identify, harvest ecologically, and use our most common, widespread, delicious, and healthful renewable resources.

Your arrest was a sensation; could you briefly talk about that episode?

I was leading a foraging tour in Central Park in NYC on March 29, 1986, looking for common, renewable wild plants, without knowing that two “plants” had infiltrated my tour: The Parks Department had signed up 2 undercover agents—park rangers disguised as nature lovers—on this field walk.

The man and woman said they were married, and never kissed, so I figured they’d been married a long time! They paid me with marked $20 bills. Because the man kept taking photos, I held up all the specimens so he could get good snapshots of specimens. Only I was the specimen! At the end of the tour, after I had eaten a dandelion, they used secret walkie-talkies to summon the other rangers. Suddenly, the entire NYC Parks Department Enforcement Patrol popped out from behind the bushes. The surrounded me, in case I was going to climb up a tree, handcuffed me, so I couldn’t bop them on the head with the dandelion, searched me, then hauled me off to the police station. Fortunately, they couldn’t hold me very long. When they rummaged through my backpack, they found I had eaten all the evidence! So they issued me a desk appearance summons to appear in court. Charged with criminal mischief for “removing vegetation from the park” because I ate a dandelion, if found guilty, I could have faced a year in jail. Then they made their biggest mistake: They let me go!

I went home and called every TV station, radio station, and newspaper in the phone book. The next morning 5 cops stopped me on the way to the newsstand. “What do you want?” I asked. “I haven’t eaten a single dandelion. I haven’t even had breakfast yet!” “We don’t care,” one replied, “we want your autograph!” I was on newspaper front pages all over the country. WCBS-TV covered me on the national news, airing the Parks Department’s undercover photos. I was on countless other news and talk shows. The free publicity was worth millions of dollars.

When I went to court, I served a huge bowl of “Wildman’s Five-Boro Salad” on the steps of Manhattan Criminal Courthouse to reporters and passers-by. The press ate it up! The publicity was so bad for the Parks Department that the Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern, was forced to turn over a new leaf. He dropped the charges and hired me as a naturalist, to lead the same nature walks I was leading when I was arrested. A third round of publicity followed. I worked for the Parks Department for 4 years, leaving when an unfriendly administration took over.

What are your strengths and how did those help in your professional success?

I know the plants well in all their aspects, and cook with them all the time. I love science, and know the history, folklore, and mythology of the plants. I have fun with my tours, and as a life-long 3 Stooges fan, I bring in lots of goofy comedy, which adults and kids seem to enjoy. And according to my wife, I have a very loud voice!

You are a chef as well and book “The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook” is a top seller. Could you tell how to make a quick salad out of weeds and wild mushrooms?

Make sure you’ve identified everything with complete certainty. Get lots of fresh ingredients from spots where the plants are thriving, rinse them thoroughly and trim them to get rid of hard parts or extraneous plant debris before chopping them to bite-sized pieces. Aim for a variety of textures and flavors. Include small amounts of herbs, especially wild ones, to enhance and balance the flavors. Use a simple vinaigrette dressing if most of your ingredients are mild-flavored, or a creamy dressing for more spicy combinations.

Could you tell us about your published books and any future projects?

Here are my books: 1. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places, by “Wildman” Steve Brill, Harper Collins Publisher, 1994

2. The Wild Vegan Cookbook (Harvard-Common Press, 2002)

3. Shoots and Greens of Early Spring in Northeastern North America (self-published, 1986, revised 2008).

You can get the books signed from the foraging site I created, Foraging with the “Wildman,” http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com. If you get them elsewhere, the book business gets all but a few pennies of your money. I also have a DVD, Wild Edibles Basics, and a new master foraging app series, WildEdibles http://tinyurl.com/6zcnuna.  I’m going to continue to work on the app for future upgrades, and I hope to have my Foraging with Kids book out in the fall or early in the spring of 2012. Please contact “Wildman” at (914) 835-2153 for further information, and visit him at http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com.

What’s your take on global warming?

The science that human emissions of carbon dioxide are a serious threat to humans and other species is as solid as the evidence that the Earth goes around the sun. Although I have to admit that the science of misinformation vested interests are sewing to fool the American public is even more effective than the similar campaign by the tobacco industry a few decades ago to keep people puffing away to their last breath!

Do you still play chess?

I used to be a class A-rated US Chess Federation tournament player, and an expert in postal chess, under the Correspondence Chess League of America, although I haven’t played a tournament game since 1978. I still play in spare moments, i.e., during lunch in restaurants if I’m by myself, against my iPad, using software called Shredder. It’s a sore loser, and raises its playing strength every time I beat it, although it also feels sorry for me and lowers its playing strength after it wins.

Tell us one thing you hate about New York… Parks Department doesn’t count?

With only a few exceptions, most Parks Dept. personnel have been friendly to me. But since I’m driving throughout the NY Metro area to work in so many diverse spots, it’s the traffic I hate the most. Do you like to add something or any advice? Start with plants that are easy to recognize, and follow them through the seasons before you add more species. And bring kids foraging with you if possible. They’ll love it, and learn to appreciate the environment where the plants grow.

 To learn more about Wildman and his public events visit www.wildmanstevebrill.com

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