Many who follow Brill, and he said there have been thousands in the last five years, grew up in New York's concrete canyons thinking vegetables grow in cans. They are fascinated at the prospect of dining from what most of the world considers a weed patch fit only for hoe and herbicide. A recent foray with Brill that ranged from Forest Park in Queens to the shores of Jamaica Bay, with a dozen students in tow, netted a banquet of horse mushrooms, puffballs, amaranth (better known as pigweed), lamb’s-quarters, Asiatic day flower, wood sorrel, sweet wild plums, and a bushel of butternuts. Stern, however, was not impressed when told that the day's take, drawn at Brill's insistence from only a fraction of each patch, with nothing uprooted, was delicious.
“Well, you just ate our park land,” he said with a trace of bitterness. “Bon appetit. Why don't you eat in restaurants?”
Why indeed? With an estimated 14,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone and with a produce stand on practically every street corner, why would anyone want to forage?
“You go to the supermarket and buy raspberries and you know the ones in the bottom of the carton are going to be moldy and rotten and the others will be big and beautiful looking but have almost no flavor,” Brill said. “They're grown on depleted soil and sprayed with insecticides, and the only reason they grow at all is because of all the artificial fertilizers that are used. Pick raspberries in the park and you're getting exercise, sunshine, contact with nature and much better-tasting fruit, and by picking the berries, you're stimulating the bush to grow. It's very bad for the bush to have the fruit just sitting there rotting on the branch. Mushrooms you buy in the store are grown on manure and sprayed with more chemicals to kill flies than all the other vegetables in the supermarket, and they taste like it.”
Brill's chief concern, however, is the one group he said he finds hardest to educate. They're the poor and the hungry who could improve their diets with the sort of knowledge he passes out on his foraging expeditions. Brill charges $15 a head for his trips, but poor people, when he can get them interested, go along at no charge.
Because Mother Nature's pantry contains the toxic as well as the tasty, a foray with Brill takes on a genuine flavor of adventure, leaving the novice forager with that superior feeling that always comes with finding out something most people don't know.
Brill, 36 and a confirmed vegetarian, did not start out to become a naturalist playing Peter Rabbit to Stern's Farmer MacGregor for a living. He entered George Washington University as a premed student but switched to psychology halfway through and wound up taking every botany course he could fit into his schedule. It was, he said, memories of summer camp when he was a child growing up in Queens that eventually led him to his true vocation.
“My mother taught me berries when I was a child,” he said. “Subsequently, when I went to summer camp, the food was atrocious and I found the wild berry knowledge very useful in giving me a supplement to the horrible summer camp food. Then, when I was an adult, I saw Greek ladies picking things in Cunningham Park. Remembering the berries I'd picked as a child, I stopped my bike and went into the park, and even though they could hardly speak English they were able to tell me they were picking grape leaves. I made a stuffed grape leaf recipe with brown rice, tofu, ginger, garlic and raisins and it was out of this world. That was the turning point. I became very interested in wild foods and started pursuing them.”
Brill's apartment is nothing if not organic. It is a clutter of drying racks, ovens, pulp extractors and packets of clay from which its owner sculpts mushrooms of every species.
“Half my food comes from the wild,” Brill said. “It takes years to learn this on your own and there are only a handful of people in the whole country who have this kind of knowledge. It's just about only me for this area. It's not easy making a living at this, but it's getting better and better every year. People are becoming more ecologically aware. I get by between writing articles, selling sculptures and giving lectures and nutritional and herbal consultations.”
He also gets by by keeping a sharp lookout for Stern's rangers and leading his clients deep into forested parks where the arm of the law seldom ventures. Being caught is costly. “Whenever we catch him, we fine him and he pays the fine, yet he conducts these forays repeatedly,” said Stern.
[Wildman's note: This was a bald-faced lie. Stern's minions were never able to catch me in mid-bite, and I was never fined, which is why he mounted his disasterous sting operation the following year.]
“We oppose Steven Brill as we would oppose any predator or poacher.”
“Tell people my address and phone number," said Brill. “There are bountiful things to eat growing in every major metropolitan area in the nation and I want to share my knowledge with everyone.”