Steve Brill bills himself as “America’s best-known forager” – a title to which only 1970s naturalist, foodie, and erstwhile Pine Nuts spokesperson Euell Gibbons might object. With over 100 instructional nature walks annually in parks and wooded areas mainly in the Greater New York City area, Brill promotes the addition of organic, naturally occurring foodstuffs into daily diets. In addition to his open enrollment tours (listed at wildmanstevebrill.com), Brill can also be booked for private sessions.
Yes, the tricky subject of wild mushrooms is part of his teaching portfolio. But so is the consumption of invasive, destructive and generally loathed Japanese Knotweed – which Brill recommends as soup, spicy stir fry, and (if you dare) ice cream. He can tell you how to identify, harvest, and prepare everything from acorns to wild parsnips. And keep you pretty well amused along the way.
Brill stayed indoors long enough to speak to HAND/EYE editor Keith Recker about foraging.
HAND/EYE: When people come to you to learn to forage, what are they drawn to?
Steve Brill: People are drawn to my tours for every possible reason. Some are foodies. They love the flavors and cooking possibilities of the wild plants and mushrooms. Others are into medicinal plants, some want their kids to experience nature, and still others are vegans and freegans pursuing their passions. We have native New Yorkers and hikers who want to learn about their regional habitats, science buffs, and tourists from around the world. Many participants are dedicated environmentalists, and this fits into their quest for ecological knowledge. And people like being entertained in a natural setting.
After you take people out on a walk or two, what do they learn? Do you hear back from them about what they continue to practice?
People learn to identify and use edible/medicinal wild plants and mushrooms, plus related science, ecology, history, folklore, nutrition, cooking, and humor. Some people start foraging on their own after a few tours, others wait until they've attended many, and some just want to forage once with me.
What foods and foraging locations do you look forward to as the various seasons go by? What's especially delicious to you?
I look forward to all the tours on my tour calendar, and love all wild foods, from herbs and greens to berries, roots, and mushrooms. Some of my favorites are in the Plants section of my site, www.wildmanstevebrill.com.
Do you see foraging as having an important future role in the food picture of the US?
Foraging allows people to add free produce, all organic, to their diets, and lowers their environmental impact. And it's becoming more popular, so its influence will continue to increase.
I love the creative artistic and scientific aspects of foraging in the kitchen, and am always coming up with new recipes. I make healthful versions of environmentally and physiologically unhealthful conventional recipes using wild ingredients and whole ingredients from health food stores. that restaurant chefs and cookbook writers shun. Flavors and textures that replace unhealthful and environmentally unfriendly ingredients abound, but they're rarely explored from a scientific/artistic perspective.
Is foraging a glorious and eccentric nexus of left-wing hippie-dom and right-wing survivalism? Do either of these things resonate for you? On an intellectual level, is foraging a nostalgic look backward or a prescient look forward?
I'm not a survivalist, and as a jazz fan and science buff who avoided hard drugs, mysticism and rock music, I didn't fit in with the hippies, who disliked people who didn't conform to their subculture. So foraging is more of a look forward for me, toward people becoming more aware of nature through hands-on interactions with their environment, and greater awareness of the science that underlies the workings of our ecosystems.
If you could take ANY five people on a foraging walk, who would you take and why?
I want my tours to be open to everyone, but if I had a choice of just 5 people to take on tours, they'd all be kids. Kids are denied hands-on experiences with nature. I continually struggle to convince establishment-oriented school teachers, principals, PTA personnel, day camp directors, and even scout leaders that kids need to learn about the planet they live on through hands-on experiences with experts who can relate to the kids -- even though most kids are obviously eager for such experiences. It would be kids and young people of all ages, from open-minded pre-schoolers to curious elementary school kids, adventurous middle- and high school science nerds, college environmental majors, and children of any age who want to experience the workings of their local ecosystems and participate in these processes at all levels.
For more information about Steve Brill and his foraging tours, see www.wildmanstevebrill.com.
Forager and teacher Steve Brill finds wild foods in plain sight. Is foraging the next wave in handmade food?