Like it or not, Britain's chief delegate to the United Nations will be dining this week at his Beekman Place residence on sheep sorrel, lady's-thumb, poor man's pepper, amaranth and lamb's-quartersall wild plants and weeds picked yesterday in Central Park by his enterprising chef.
The chef, Linda Piggot, was one of a dozen New Yorkers who braved the morning downpour and the afternoon mud to forage for food in the middle of Manhattan with Steve (Wildman) Brill, once a renegade naturalist and now a tour guide for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Prowling the Park
In backpacks and hiking boots, with paper bags for mushrooms and plastic containers far berries, this motley band of explorers circled the Lake, prowled the Ramble and climbed Belvedere Castle in search of plants to eat and plants to avoid. Besides Ms. Piggott, who packed her bounty in a Fortnum & Mason shopping bag from her native London, the hardy band included a psychologist, a poet, a graduate student and a man who designs artificial limbs.
Their bearded guide, Mr. Brill, 38 years old, was one of New York's instant celebrities last spring when, after a sting operation involving two disguised park rangers and $40 in marked bills, he was arrested for giving unauthorized tours.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Brill and Henry J. Stern, the city's Parks Commissioner, came to a friendly meeting of the minds. The department dropped charges against Mr. Brill and hired him to lead free nature walks, during which he was to pick common plants but not rare ones, while discouraging others from unsupervised foraging.
The last message has gone unheeded-by some of Mr. Brill's regulars.
‘Another Type of Grass’
“I utilize what I learn and pick my salad twice a week,” said Susan Kremnitzer, a clinical psychologist whose Fifth Avenue office is right across the street from the park's plenty. “I buy tomatoes and carrots, but all the green stuff I pick. The price is right. And I know how to go out of the range of the rangers.”
Mr. Brill is no ordinary tour guide. He wears walking shorts, a pith helmet and a hand-painted T-shirt and at lunchtime offers his students a share of his sandwichavocado, tahini and black trumpet mushrooms on homemade rye.
His jokes, like his appearance, prompt nostalgia for the l96O's. “Years ago I swore to leave grass alone,” he said, displaying a stalk of foxtail, a grain related to millet. “But that was another type of grass.”
Mr. Brill's students are taught never to eat anything without his approval and are specifically warned off poisonous species. Yesterday, Mr. Brill pointed out hemlock, nightshade and horse chestnutand jokingly recommended them for visiting in-laws.
Exotic mushrooms are the most precious discoveries. Yesterday, the finds included two-colored bolete, oyster mushrooms and ringless honey mushrooms. But none compared with what Marilyn Berkman discovered the day before in Forest Park in Queens: a chicken mushroom l2 inches in diameter, which she sautéed with rice and artichokes and fed her boyfriend for dinner.
"There was a light shining on it and it looked like a huge flower," said Ms. Berkman, a writer, who still sounded ecstatic 24 hours later.
Less exciting but just as nourishing were salad greens, herbs and berries, an unpredictable bounty that changes from season to season. “You accept nature as nature presents itself,” Mr. Brill said. “It's a matter of persistence and patience. It could be the difference between taking that path or this path.”
Yesterday there was lemony wood sorrel, which tops salads in the city's fanciest restaurants, and sassafras, to be made into fragrant tea or dried into the filé powder for gumbo. There were bittersweet black cherries, perfect for jam, and Japanese knotweed, which resembles rhubarb. There were blueberries, near the base of Belvedere Castle, and raspberries, beneath an entrance ramp at West 77th Street.
There was also common plantain, a weed that relieves the itch and swelling of mosquito bites. “Now,” said Mr. Brill, “the undercover agents can arrest me for practicing medicine without a license.”