Leading American foraging expert “Wildman” Steve Brill has been guiding foraging tours in an d around New York City since 1982, both for the city and independently, but he’s best known for having been arrested and handcuffed by undercover park rangers for eating dandelion in Central Park. He also lectures for schools and youth programs, museums, libraries and environmental groups. He is the author of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, and has created a wild food Web site, www.wildmanstevebrill.com, produced a video series, Foraging with the “Wildman” and has been profiled numerous times on television shows and in newspapers and magazines.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi. I’m Caryn Hartglass, your host today for It’s All About Food. We’ve got a wild show today. Very wild. Just wait and see. Here’s a show where we talk about my favorite subject, food, and how wonderful it can be in your life for so many reasons other than just eating delicious plant foods but how good it is for your health and for the planet. This is a live call-in show. You can call in with comments and questions anytime at 1-888-874-4888. That’s a lot of eights. 888-874-4888. We have a wild show. What do I mean by that? We are going to be speaking with leading American foraging expert “Wildman” Steve Brill. He’s been guiding foraging tours in and around New York City since 1982, both for the city and independently. He’s best known for having been arrested and handcuffed by undercover park rangers for eating a dandelion in Central Park. He also lectures for schools and youth programs, museums, libraries, and environmental groups. He is the author of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places in addition to The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, a comprehensive groundbreaking culinary reference. He has a website—a wild food website—wildmanstevebrill.com and also has produced a video series, Foraging with the “Wildman.” Wildman! Steve Brill, are you with us?
Steve Brill: Yes I am. I also have one other book, Shoots and Greens of Early Spring [in Northeastern North America].
Caryn Hartglass: Oh! When did that come out?
Steve Brill: Two years ago.
Caryn Hartglass: I missed it!
Steve Brill: Okay, I’ll have to send you a download.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh. I would love it. What’s it about?
Steve Brill: It’s about the first plants that come up in early spring when they’re the most difficult to recognize, what they look like through all of the seasons, how to harvest them safely and ecologically, and how to use them in the kitchen.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh gosh, I needed that book. When I had first emailed you about doing this show, I had questioned you about a couple of things that had just come up on my little terrace garden and I didn’t know what they were.
Steve Brill: Send me some photos and I’ll tell you what you have. If they’re edible, you will enjoy them.
Caryn Hartglass: I know I will. Okay Steve. You have an unusual business, being a forager. I’m not one who knows much about how humanity got started, but my understanding is we were all foragers at one point.
Steve Brill: Definitely.
Caryn Hartglass: Somehow we got lost along the way.
Steve Brill: Well foraging is great for feeding a family or a small group. It’s not really good for feeding a huge population. That’s why they invented agriculture—
Caryn Hartglass: —agriculture and it’s been downhill ever since.
Steve Brill: That’s right. People have messed up the plants, genetically modifying things by conventional breeding to make the plants bigger and heavier through adding more water. So if you juice a carrot, you get a huge amount of juice out of it. You juice a wild carrot, you don’t get very much juice out of it because it doesn’t have that much water, it has way more carrot and it’s much tastier and it holds together a lot better when you cook it. If you make carrot soup or stew or carrot cake or an Indian carrot dessert with the raisins like the stuff you get in Indian restaurants, you can do this with nutritional ingredients; you don’t have to use all the white sugar.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. You just said something that I had no idea about. That is that we’re adding more water to the conventionally grown produce.
Steve Brill: Yeah, makes more money.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m a big—I don’t know if this is connected at all, but you’ve just sparked my curiosity because I’m a big fan of juicing, green juicing in particular, to get more nutrients.
Steve Brill: Well with commercial plants that’s certainly something you need to do. With wild plants you just eat the plant.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. They’ve got everything you need in them.
Steve Brill: They’ve got everything in it. Including a lot of fiber, which you’re not going to get through juicing.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I know that. But I eat plenty of fiber in the food that I eat. I’m just coming from a different perspective where I really want to super-boost my immune system and so I green juice. It saved my life, so I’m sticking with it. But I’m just curious to hear—
Steve Brill: There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re using commercial food.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah and I am.
Steve Brill: But if you can add some wild foods, you’re going to get a whole another dimension of nutrients. Every now and then something comes up. Oh, tomatoes have lycopene in them that reduces your chance of cancer. There are wild foods that have way more lycopene than tomatoes. There is Japanese knotweed, which has way more resveratrol than you get in red wine.
Caryn Hartglass: Hmmm. Okay.
Steve Brill: Every time they discover a nutrient, it’s already in the wild foods in greater concentration.
Caryn Hartglass: Where—this is a loaded question—where can we find wild foods?
Steve Brill: You just walk out the door and they are there. People don’t recognize them. If you go into a typical garden there’ll be wood sorrel, which has three leaves. People confuse it with clover, but the wood sorrel leaves are heart-shaped. It’s full of vitamin C and antioxidants, very sour-tasting. Clover has oval leaves. The way I keep that straight is the wood sorrel, because of the hearts, reminds me of my beautiful wife. The clover, which has oval leaves and no hearts, reminds me of my ex-girlfriend who ran off with another guy on Valentine’s Day fifteen years ago and also has no heart. You can be more sympathetic.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I know you have a lot of stories, and maybe we’ll get to some of them. Do you live on a lot of wild foods yourself?
Steve Brill: As many as I can get. I’m so busy leading tours and I’m writing books too, I don’t have the time to forage as much as I would like to. Probably about fifteen percent of my food comes from the wild, and just about every recipe I make has at least one wild ingredient.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. You give tours, and I know you do them in… You have given them in Central Park.
Steve Brill: The whole greater New York area. Central Park, the five boroughs, New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island. Once in a while I’ll even go to Philadelphia.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Can we go on a virtual tour?
Steve Brill: Sure.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s say we’re in Central Park. What’re some of the things you would point out?
Steve Brill: Okay, well I’ll actually be in Central Park in a few days from when we’re recording this. The first thing we’re going to look for right inside the west 72nd street entrance are hawthorn berries. They normally don’t ripen until September, but they are ripening earlier. There could be two reasons that they’re ripening earlier. One is that because of global warming, the plants started flowering earlier and the flowers developed into fruits earlier. However, that’s impossible being that global warming is a myth so answer number two is that Al Gore sneaked into the park at night when no one was looking and fooled the plants. Not just the hawthorns, but all the other ones around the world, into coming up a month earlier. He’s been very busy. He is the devil incarnate.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. To prove his point and sell more books.
Steve Brill: Yes, yes. The hawthorns are related to apples. They taste a little bit like apples with a really nice sour flavor and a quality all their own. You just eat them and spit out the seeds or cook them and strain out the seeds, you get something like applesauce. There are a lot of varieties around. Since they have pretty flowers that bloom in the spring, the landscapers like planting them. One of my tour participants did have a mishap with hawthorns. The woman’s name is Madeleine. This was when she was studying nutrition. She was taking dietetic courses in the days when the dietitians were still feeding Jell-O to cancer patients, and she wanted to know all about herbs and came on my tours and read lots of books. When we found hawthorns in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, she was just thrilled because she’d read about them for years and never actually seen them and they taste really good. They’re used in herbal medicine as a tonic for the heart. They have a different action on the various components of the heartbeat from digitalis, which is what is traditionally used and hawthorns haven’t really been investigated scientifically, but they certainly should be. Of course you can’t make any money if you’re a drug company; you can’t patent a wild plant. That’s why they have not been studied extensively. So she took a lot of hawthorns home and ate them. But then they were gone. The next day she went walking through Central Park. There’s an area where there’s a statue of Alice in Wonderland that was there since I guess the park began, and there were hawthorn trees there and she was so happy to have found her own hawthorn trees she just started gobbling them up. After a while a whole bunch of people were eating the hawthorns too. All except for one man who was standing off to the side and Madeleine invited him. “Hey try some of these, they’re really good.” “No thanks, I think I’ll pass.” “But you’ll really like them!” “I really don’t want to.” “But why not?” He said, “I’ll tell you why. When you people first started eating the hawthorns, I opened one up and there was a worm inside.” Someone else said, “Oh look, there’s a worm in mine!” Someone says, “There’s a worm in mine too!” And someone else said, “They’re all full of worms!” Fortunately for Madeleine she’s not a vegetarian, but there’s two morals to that story. One, look before you eat when you’re eating organic wild foods. Some of the food is pristine, and some of them the bugs have gotten to first. Moral number two, never accept a hawthorn from Madeleine. That’s one of the first things we’ll be looking for. We’ll also be looking for lamb’s quarters.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I see them all the time.
Steve Brill: Yeah, that’s a relative of spinach. Not going to make much juice. But incredibly tasty. More vitamin A, calcium, iron, and potassium than spinach. Never gets bitter. You use it raw or cooked in any kind of recipe where you use spinach or other cooked greens. Put it in salads, put it in sandwiches, put it in soups. I make a quiche with it with vegan cheeses that’s absolutely delicious. I think the recipe I’m going to try is creamed lamb’s quarters using a combination of silken tofu, lecithin granules, and corn oil pureed in some almond milk to simulate the high-cholesterol dairy cream. The lamb’s quarters with some onions and garlic, sautéed in some of the corn oil and then have that sauce poured over them, should come out really well. I may put a little bit of thyme and rosemary too. I’ll see when I’m cooking and write everything down. That might be an upcoming cookbook. I love experimenting with wild foods and recipes in the kitchen, and I try to simulate some of the classic cuisines from around the world but using alternative ingredients that the restaurant chefs usually ignore.
Caryn Hartglass: Well you have a great cookbook, The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, and maybe we’ll get to talking about it a little later. It came out in 2002 I think, but it’s really beautiful and the recipes are very, very creative.
Steve Brill: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: But I want to get back to—we’ll talk about that a little later.
Steve Brill: Okay. Well another thing we will probably find if we’re doing a tour—we’ll definitely find it, the gardeners have been trying to kill it for twenty-eight years, and we’ve been foraging it for twenty-eight years in the same spot and it just keeps growing—is called sheep’s sorrel. It’s an arrow-shaped leaf with two lobes that are perpendicular to the base of the leaf and a pointy tip, so it looks a little like a sheep’s face. It has an incredibly sour flavor. It’s another one you put in salads or soups. It was used in an herbal formula called the Essiac formula for cancer. That’s one that has not been proven to work, but the sheep’s sorrel definitely works in any kind of recipe you put it in. Very, very tasty. Again, full of vitamin C and antioxidants. Sheep’s sorrel is not baa-a-a-a-ad.
Caryn Hartglass: Ah, you’re full of ‘em.
Steve Brill: Well I’m an environmentalist; I recycle all my old jokes. We’ll also be looking for sassafras. That is a Native American tree. The first thing you think, “Oh, you’re uprooting a tree ‘cause you use the root of it, isn’t that a bad thing?” Turns out the ecology of sassafras is such that it’s a medium-sized tree that needs full sunlight. It grows in disturbed habitats, which by definition are disturbed, which means something has removed all the vegetation, either humans or avalanches or hurricanes or landslides or something else. It grows in these unstable environments and if the environment stabilizes then taller trees come and shade it out. Its answer to this dilemma is to make zillions of saplings that are all viable. You see two or three sassafras large trees; you see five hundred or a thousand saplings. We go to a place where the park is maintained as a meadow or field, sort of halfway in-between. A little bit larger than a meadow, a little bit shorter than a field. I think they mow there maybe once—cut stuff down maybe once a year. The sassafras just loves it. It keeps coming up, they cut it down, it comes back again. If it has rained and the soil is soft, you take some of the saplings that are like a foot or two high, you pull them up and the root smells like root beer. It is incredibly delicious. You make tea out of it, which the Native Americans used as a detoxifier. If you chill the tea and add some sparkling water to it, you have root beer. The thing that I discovered about sassafras is the outer layer of the root, that’s called the cambium. Normally the tissues of a tree have three layers: the bark on the outside, the dead wood xylem and phloem in the inside, and between those two layers is a thin layer of living cells called the cambium, the bark and the wood being dead. Underground there is no bark. You just have the cambium and the pith, or the wood. You wash off the cambium, peel it off, chop it up finely, and use it in recipes sort of the way you’d use cinnamon. It has a sweet flavor; it’s more like root beer than cinnamon, but it works in the same kind of recipes. For example, I would take about a teaspoon of the cambium—it’s very strong-tasting—and boil it in a quart of water with a couple of tablespoons of agar flakes. Agar acts as a thickener like gelatin, except you don’t have to cut off the hooves of cows and horses to make it. Unlike gelatin, it’s stable at room temperature. Animal gelatin has to be chilled or it melts. Then I add clear liquid stevia, which is an herbal sweetener you get from health food stores, some vanilla and orange rind, and cook that until the agar is dissolved, and then chill it and you have sassafras JELL-O, which is quite good. One question with sassafras—the FDA has removed it from the market. You’re not allowed to buy or sell…I guess you’re allowed to buy, you’re just not allowed to sell sassafras because they discovered to their horror that if you have the equivalent of only 400 cups of sassafras tea made from artificial concentrate every day for only two years and you just happen to be a rat, you’ll have a higher chance of developing liver cancer. Rats convert safrole, the active constituent, into a carcinogen. Humans do not. No human has ever gotten sick from drinking sassafras tea in all of recorded history. Plus safrole, the constituent that rats convert into carcinogen, is destroyed by heat. There is no safrole in there if you make tea or JELL-O or root beer out of it. In addition to that, beer, which is fourteen times as carcinogenic to humans as sassafras is to rodents due to the beer’s alcohol content, is still on the market. The experiment proves two important points. One is the stronger beer lobby in Washington than sassafras lobby. Two, there are a lot of rats in the FDA.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I really appreciate this story because I used to be very fond of sassafras tea. I drank it a lot through college and that was a long time ago in the late ‘70s, and that must’ve been when one of these studies came out because I remember at some point hearing that there was some danger with sassafras. You’ve cleared all that up. I never followed up to find out what was behind it. Very interesting.
Steve Brill: It’s completely safe. Sassafras actually had its heyday in the era of exploration. Europeans came over to America mainly to make money and they saw this very delicious drink that the Indians were drinking and they brought it back to Europe to sell. Indians used it as a spring tonic. They lived in longhouses with little holes on the top for the smoke to go out, no chimneys. Lots of families lived crowded together in the same longhouse, and each had their own little fire going. They were not in good shape from all the smoke by springtime and they used this as a detoxifier. The Europeans in the 1500s brought this back to Europe and sold it as a tonic and people loved the taste and it made them feel good. They kept making more and more claims for it and making more and more money until finally they went one step too far. They started saying sassafras cures everything. Now everything, the set of everything includes sexually transmitted disease. Suddenly anyone seen holding a cup of sassafras tea in their hand would be suspected of having syphilis or gonorrhea. The bottom dropped out of the sassafras market, and people who’d spent their life savings shipping it from America to Europe couldn’t even give it away.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh my gosh. Sassafras needs a comeback.
Steve Brill: Definitely.
Caryn Hartglass: The root beer sodas that are in the market, are those artificially flavored?
Steve Brill: Yes. Yes. That’s very good for the artificial flavor manufacturers.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Steve Brill: Not very good for us.
Caryn Hartglass: Just briefly, another point that you brought up: the fact that these tests were done on rats. There are many, many tests that’re done on animals that don’t correlate at all to humans.
Steve Brill: Oh definitely. There are so many things that cure cancer but only if you’re a mouse. When they start testing them on humans, they don’t work.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Anything else we would want to see while we’re on our tour in Central Park?
Steve Brill: Yeah, we would be finding the seeds of a plant called garlic mustard. Now this is an invasive species; it takes over the woodlands. It comes from Europe and it has this garlic flavor which people love, but animals don’t. The garlic is a really good defense against bugs, which would otherwise eat plants, lay eggs, and multiply and then eat more of the plants. Garlic mustard is pretty much immune to all insects. Unless Italian insects find it, and then it goes extinct. The leaves are going to be coming back into season in November but what we have now are the seeds. The plant dies after two years, and there are whole fields of these dead plants. You just stick them into a shopping bag and the seeds fall out into the bag. When you get home, put everything on a tray, blow away the chaff, and the seeds can go right into a jar. They are small, oblong, grooved black seeds and they have a really nice spicy flavor with a bit of garlic to them. Unlike commercial mustard seeds which you have to grind up, these are soft enough that you can chew them and they actually add texture to whatever you’re cooking, any kind of spicy food. You just have to be careful when you collect the garlic mustard not to let the seeds fall on the ground, especially if you’re Catholic; you’re not supposed to spill your seeds.
Caryn Hartglass: Well one of the things that keeps coming to mind—I’m always talking to people about all the different wonderful foods that I eat that you can easily find in a supermarket that will provide a lot of variety into one’s diet. Especially the standard American diet which is white flour foods, processed foods, salt, fat, sugar, cheese, and of course all those dead animals. You’re adding a whole another layer; there are all these wonderful different leaves and berries and seeds with really unique flavors that we’re all missing out on.
Steve Brill: There are so many delicious things. We’ll be looking for Native American black cherries too. These are not the same as the commercial black cherries. This is an American species; they’re smaller than the commercial cherries. Again, the commercial cherries have been bred to be bigger and have more water in them.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, bigger is better.
Steve Brill: Yeah. They have way more flavor. They have a bittersweet cherry-plus-grapefruit flavor. The trees are very common. If we find them growing in full sunlight with relatively large cherries, they’re absolutely delicious. We find a tree that isn’t doing too well in the shade, the cherries taste awful. But there are enough that we keep looking until we find a tree that has tons of these cherries that are within reach. You just gobble them up and you can’t stop eating them. At first they taste a little strange, and then you can’t stop. Fortunately they have a long season; they’re around from the middle to the end of the summer. They’re native to eastern North America, and there’s nothing poisonous that looks like them. They’re especially good if you cook them and strain out the seeds, add a thickener, and a non-sugar sweetener like stevia or vegetable glycerin, and then cook them with some unsweetened chocolate. You can make smoothies, you can make puddings, you can make vegan ice creams. I have a lot of those in my cookbook and they’re out of this world.
Caryn Hartglass: Can we go into the park and pick whatever we want and eat it?
Steve Brill: You do need to be discreet. The park officials are afraid if they officially allow foraging, someone is going to say, “Oh I foraged, I poisoned myself, and I’m going to sue the city.” They’re afraid someone is going to contrive a lawsuit. They could apply regulations that are meant to stop vandalism against foragers. They tried this with me back in 1986 when two undercover park rangers infiltrated one of my tours. Was a man and a woman, they said they were married. They never held hands or kissed. I figured they’d been married a long time. This was in the ‘80s when there was a crime wave going on in New York City and you couldn’t walk down the path in the park without people trying to sell you drugs, but the undercover agents paid me mock bills to take them on a nature walk. The man had a camera, and every time I found a plant I’d hold it up so he could get a good picture of the specimen. Only, I was the specimen. At the end of the tour I showed people—this was in March before the flowers come up and they get bitter—you can eat the leaves of the dandelion. I ate one dandelion leaf, the man ducked behind a tree, took out a hidden walkie-talkie. “All right, there he is on 81st Street. Go get him.” Every park ranger in New York City popped out from behind the bushes. They surrounded me in case I was going to climb up a tree, put me in handcuffs lest I bop them on the head with a dandelion. They searched me—I don’t know if they were looking for weeds or weed. They hauled me off to the police station in handcuffs, charged me with criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park. They searched my backpack. Fortunately I’d eaten all the evidence. Then they issued me a desk appearance ticket that said I had to go to court and face up to a year in jail if convicted. Then they made a big mistake: they let me go. I went home and spent the next day notifying the press. I wound up on Page 1 of the Chicago Sun-Times, I wound up on The [David] Letterman Show, I wound up on CBS Evening News. When they took me to court I served Wildman’s Five-Borough Salad on the steps of the Manhattan criminal courthouse to reporters and passersby. The press ate that up too. The city negotiated with me, dropped the charges, and hired me and for the next four years until the administration changed I worked as a parks naturalist teaching foraging tours in the city parks. Getting arrested was definitely the second best thing that ever happened to me in Central Park.
Caryn Hartglass: I love that story, and I want to hear what the first thing is but we’re going to take a little break right now. Steve, stay with us. We’ll be right back.
Steve Brill: Okay, thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. We’re talking with “Wildman” Steve Brill. Thanks for joining me. If you have any comments or questions during the show, you can email me during the week at email@example.com. Hi, Steve?
Steve Brill: Hi.
Caryn Hartglass: Welcome back.
Steve Brill: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: So you were just saying that getting arrested was the second best thing that ever happened. What was the first?
Steve Brill: I was leading a singles tour in Central Park, and there was a single woman who loved nature as much as I do. We started dating, we went to the Galápagos Islands, we went to Antarctica, and a number of years ago… [Steve, plus Caryn after the second measure, mouth claps the “Bridal Chorus,” a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”] …we got married.
Caryn Hartglass: I just did that in harmony with you.
Steve Brill: And six years ago… [Steve mouth claps “Rock-a-bye Baby”]
Caryn Hartglass: This guy is talented.
Steve Brill: …we had a baby and her name is Violet and she loves foraging as much as I do.
Caryn Hartglass: Aw, that’s sweet.
Steve Brill: She has a long history too. First of all, violets are edible. They’re full of vitamin C and antioxidants and also something called genistein, which lowers your chance of getting cancer. Violet actually had a life about 5,000 years ago. She was a wood nymph in Ancient Greece and Zeus came down to Earth disguised as a handsome young man looking for fun and took up with Violet. But then he was afraid his wife Hera would find out and he’d never hear the end of it, Hera being immortal and all that, so he used his magical powers and turned Violet into a cow figuring his wife would never suspect he was romantically involved with a cow. Sheep maybe, but not a cow. When Zeus went home Violet got hungry and she started eating grass, but it was tough and it made her mouth hurt. She started to cry and Zeus felt sorry for her and turned all her teardrops into violets. That’s the origin of the violets. My Violet already knows so many plants that if anyone ever turns her into a cow, she’ll know what to eat.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. Is she a picky eater?
Steve Brill: No, she eats all kinds of natural food and of course all the junk food they indoctrinate the kids with in school and day camp. She eats that too, but she eats a lot of healthy stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good to hear, ‘cause I know children are picky eaters and they are heavily influenced by their friends and everyone around them.
Steve Brill: She never was. I was when I was a kid, and my mother always wished that I had a kid with all the problems that I gave her and she did not get her wish.
Caryn Hartglass: Good for you.
Steve Brill: She sleeps well, she gets along well with other kids, and she’s not a picky eater. She always finds things with which to occupy herself, which is sort of the opposite of what I was like when I was a kid.
Caryn Hartglass: You mentioned dandelions before. Certainly they’re annoying to a lot of people because they pop up on their lawns, and yet we see them more and more now as a pricey green food sold in health food stores.
Steve Brill: Yeah, which is ridiculous. They’re free; they’re all over the place. You collect the leaves when they first come up early in the spring just for a couple of weeks well before the flowers appear, and then when new growth comes up in the same places in the fall. They have a little bit of bitterness in them so use them sparingly raw in salads. If you cook them with spices, sauté them in an oil with spices and then add a sauce where the sauce, the oil, and the spices all come from the same culture like Indian ingredients or Thai ingredients or French ingredients. They all have typical sauces, olive oil or coconut oil, thyme and rosemary or basil and coriander and ginger. Sauces can be curry sauces or coconut sauces as something eastern. Or it could be a wine sauce if it’s something western. You add the sauce after the dandelions are sautéed and simmer them and the bitterness totally vanishes. I’ve got lots of recipes in my wild vegan cookbook of that nature and they all come out really, really well. The dandelions are loaded with vitamins—vitamin A, iron, calcium, potassium—way more than anything you can buy in the store.
Caryn Hartglass: A lot of people have gotten so far away from the kitchen. Don’t know how to prepare foods. Certainly don’t know how to eat properly but are lost in the kitchen, and now I’m realizing we are even further away from that, knowing how to prepare our foods. We don’t even know where our food comes from and about all of these wonderful wild foods. But I think there’s something really inherent in our DNA where we really love to be involved in seeing food grow.
Steve Brill: Oh, that comes out as soon as you take kids foraging. I work with a lot of children’s groups. I do a lot of birthday parties, day camps, and school classes, and the kids absolutely love it and it makes the science that’s behind what those plants are that they’re eating and collecting way more relevant to their lives. I’m working on a book called Foraging with Kids, which will be out in the spring. That addresses these issues. It’s totally nuts that tests which are supposed to evaluate how you’re doing in learning have become the ends in themselves in so many school systems.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well I remember once asking a five-year-old where the apple he was eating came from and he told me Publix, which was the name of the supermarket, and not from a tree and I really don’t think he knew.
Steve Brill: Yeah, well when my daughter was two we went to a wild apple tree. I went and shook the branches and apples came down like rain and she just laughed her head off. It was so funny, daddy shaking the tree and making it rain apples and she’s six now and still remembers it. I feel very strongly kids need to have the experience of foraging. My mom was not an expert forager but she did show me raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries when I was a kid when we were on vacation in the summer. My mother was from Europe where foraging is a much bigger tradition. The main danger we have here with mushrooms is that the traditional Italian mushroom hunters will find them before we do. Then you see the bottom of the mushroom, it looks clearly like it’s been cut with a knife. Then you know you’ve gotten there too late. There are some incredibly delicious mushrooms. I don’t know what part of the country you’re in but in the New York area it has barely rained the entire summer and mushrooms need rain, so we have to wait until we get more than one period of days where there are drenching rains and then the mushrooms will be back.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m thinking about memories that I’ve had as a child and as an adult where I’ve really flipped out because I was in nature and there was all of this food. When I was a kid growing up on Long Island before they built a lot of houses in the area behind our new house, there were still loads and loads of blackberry bushes and I would just go out as a kid and I would bring back tons of them. It just thrilled me.
Steve Brill: They’re in season now and my tour this weekend in Central Park will definitely feature blackberries.
Caryn Hartglass: But then as an adult the same thing sort of hit me. I was riding a bike around Shelter Island and there’s some park and I forget exactly what it was, but I went to the entrance and I never really got into the park because the entrance had all of these wild raspberry bushes and I spent like an hour just picking all these raspberries. It was just delightful.
Steve Brill: Was this in July?
Caryn Hartglass: Gosh. It was a few years ago, I don’t remember. It must’ve been the summer, yeah.
Steve Brill: Okay, yeah. There’s a species of raspberry called the wineberry, which is an Asian species of raspberry. Incredibly flavorful. Way better than the wimpy commercial ones. They’re all over Long Island and eastern North America. Very easy to recognize, nothing poisonous looks like them. They are probably loaded with antioxidants and vitamins although they’ve never been analyzed.
Caryn Hartglass: Then when I lived in the south of France in the early ‘90s for a few years, and when I would walk around in the woods, thyme—the herb thyme—just grew all over the place naturally. It was just so lovely, the fragrance. I was just tickled. A lot of people there make tea from thyme and a lot of different things.
Steve Brill: The thyme oil is a natural antibiotic. It does destroy pathogenic microorganisms. It’s a really good tea to use if you have a sore throat. There’s not a huge amount of wild thyme. I guess the closest to where you are on Long Island would be on the Long Island Green Belt in Smithtown. I found wild thyme growing in grassy areas there.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It’s just something that I really love. I’m definitely going to have to get a refresher course. I went on one of your tours or a couple of them in the ‘90s. Time to take another one. Is all of that information on your website?
Steve Brill: Yes. You go to wildmanstevebrill.com. All of my tours are there. There’s a section on the stuff I do with kids. Curriculum, résumé, letters of recommendation, Scouts, garden clubs and the like. There are lots and lots of plants, many of them excerpted from my book so you can read all about the plants and if you like them and want to learn more then you can get the books. There is lots of stuff that will take you to YouTube so you can see me giving talks and demonstrating the plants for libraries and garden clubs. There’s press clips so you can see me on Letterman and CBS News getting arrested and the parks commissioner saying, “Going into Central Park and eating a dandelion is like going into the Central Park Zoo and eating a bear cub.”
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah right.
Steve Brill: I’ve got lots of information and I try to make it entertaining. Lots of pictures too.
Caryn Hartglass: Now what about poisonous plants?
Steve Brill: Oh there are some really good ones. If you’re having problems with the boss I can show you one in our area called white snakeroot. That one stops your brain from communicating with your heart and lungs so that you die of respiratory failure a little bit before heart failure.
Caryn Hartglass: Lovely.
Steve Brill: Yeah, there’s only one person who can eat that plant without being harmed in the whole world, and that of course is George Bush; he has no brain. What happened with that one—it’s a native plant so the pioneers who came over from Europe didn’t know about it. They let their cows browse in the woods because they didn’t have the capacity to cut down enough of the eastern forests to make pastures for the cows. Cows are not woodland animals; they are grassland animals. So the cows, they had nothing else to eat apparently ‘cause if the plant doesn’t taste good to a cow. But at times when there wasn’t a lot else, usually in August, they would eat white snakeroot and get poisoned. Don’t get worried if you’re an animal lover; the cows had a way of surviving the poison. They put it all into the milk. People would drink the milk and they would get this horrible disease called milk sickness, which killed a lot of them. Scientists finally decided to investigate what was the cause of milk sickness. They did not have the technology we have today in the early 1800s, but they were smart people and they asked a Native American shaman by the name of Mother Shawnee what could be causing this milk sickness. The shamans knew all of the diseases. Well one thing you don’t want to do when you want information from a shaman, please don’t squeeze the shaman. Mother Shawnee equated the symptoms of milk sickness with those of white snakeroot poisoning and the scientists then came up with a good experiment. They fed it to a calf, which could not excrete the poison through its milk. When the calf died, they told the farmers, “You’ve got to get the cows out of the woods and make pastures for them.” Nobody wanted to believe it. It was too much work and people kept dying of milk sickness even after the way to prevent it had been discovered and announced. It took years. Now all cows are in pastures and they are never allowed to go in the woods. Meanwhile a very famous American died of milk sickness and she didn’t even know she was famous. When she died she had an eight-year-old son who grew up to become one of the most important presidents of the United States. Any idea which president had a mother who died when he was eight? You have to know American history.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t.
Steve Brill: It was Lincoln.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh. Wow.
Steve Brill: One thing to learn from this show: do not drink the milk from Lincoln’s mom’s cow.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I would just shorten that sentence and say, “Do not drink the milk” because as a lot of listeners know, dairy, milk from cows, is great for their babies but it’s not really an appropriate food for [humans] and it’s linked to all kinds of other ailments, not just this milk sickness you’re talking about.
Steve Brill: Yeah, all the milk I drink comes straight from the soy cow.
Caryn Hartglass: Me too. We like the soy cow. Or the almond cow.
Steve Brill: Right. Going to say that I did a lot of cooking with soy milk and some recipes almond milk is better and sometimes oat milk works better and you just have to experiment to see which one is which. If you’re cooking with something acidic, like you want to put lemon juice into a sauce, then you definitely don’t want to use soymilk because that causes the soy milk to curdle which is the first step to making tofu. You’re better off with the almond milk or the oat milk.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s jump into your cookbook.
Steve Brill: Okay.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a big book and it has more than 500 recipes. It’s The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook.
Steve Brill: They changed the title to The Wild Vegan Cookbook.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh. Who did?
Steve Brill: You have the old version.
Caryn Hartglass: I have the old version, okay. Great, because it is a vegan cookbook and that’s a good thing. One of the things that I like about it are the recipes with the un-wild foods. You have a lot of great tofu cheese kind of recipes and I think they’re pretty unique, where you marinate the tofu and bake it or marinate the tofu and mash it depending on your needs or whatever. There are a lot of very tasty ones here.
Steve Brill: Sure. The cheese has different textures, so you can use different grades of tofu—silken tofu for something that comes out like cream cheese or extra-firm tofu that’s baked with corn oil which gives it a buttery flavor for more of the hard cheeses that you want to grate. Cheese is also sour. You can use some of the milder vinegars like wine vinegar or brown rice vinegar to give it the sour flavor. Most health food cookbooks tend to favor apple cider vinegar, which is really, really strong-tasting. That came into favor in the 19th century because people lived on farms and they had apples so they had a ready supply of apple cider vinegar and they used it to clean the paint off of walls. At that time people were sort of Puritanical and they thought the human body was a filthy place and therefore if you use something harsh to clean it like you clean the wall, you’d clean out the body. Modern herbalism is a little more nutritional and gentle. This is invasive medicine practiced by herbalists, which is sort of out of style now. But that stuck with cooking, and there are so many other vinegars that give you a little bit of a sour touch without overpowering you and you don’t really taste the wine or brown rice vinegar in these cheeses. It just has the sour flavor of a cheese. Now cheese can also have a little bit of sharpness. Again, because of its health benefits in opening up the blood vessels, cayenne hot pepper seems to be the hot spice of choice in health food cookbooks. It definitely is healthy, but there are so many different kinds of hot sauces. I tend to like the chili paste, which is made with chilies and a little bit of oil that is sold in Chinese and East Asian groceries. That gives you a hotness that’s a little more subtle. Or you can use combinations so you don’t taste either one of them because there’s not enough of either of them to taste. A combination of Tabasco sauce and hot paprika, that works really well. Paprika goes quite well with cheese. All of these combinations and different kinds of cooking, you can get all kinds of textures and flavors from the tofu that simulate the various different kinds of cheeses. I can cook tofu with a little bit of fenugreek and some of these other ingredients and they could come out with this… Oh the other thing is brewer’s yeast or nutritional yeast. That gives the cheese its fermented flavor. So I’ll use these combinations and I’ll make a feta cheese and then make Middle Eastern recipes with wild greens and whole grain pita bread with the feta cheese in it. That works really well too. Another thing I like doing is ice cream. When I first became a vegan in 1990, I missed all the ice cream I used to make with very unhealthful heavy cream and sugar. I did some experimentation. First of all you can use soymilk or almond milk or oat milk in place of the dairy milk. You can use a combination of liquid stevia and vegetable glycerin for the sweetness so you don’t need the white sugar or the high glycemic agave nectar that’s so popular now. Lecithin granules are important in ice cream. This all goes first into the blender and then into the ice cream machine. Lecithin is what gives egg yolks their color, flavor, and emulsifying properties, and some of the fancy French ice creams have raw egg yolks in them, which is an excellent source of salmonella. I prefer the lecithin that’s made out of organic soybeans. In place of the butterfat you can use grape seed oil. That gives it the fat content that ice cream needs but without the flavor of peanut oil or sesame oil or olive oil which would basically ruin the ice cream, unless you’re making peanut ice cream or olive oil ice cream. The grape seed oil is about as tasteless as my jokes, so it doesn’t overpower any of the other ingredients. For thickness, I’ll also use a combination of thickeners so that you don’t taste or notice either one of them. I will cook the non-dairy milk with a little bit of agar, which is a gelatin-like thickener, and arrowroot or kudzu, which is like a thickener you get in sauces, to thicken the milk first before I put it in the blender. And then I’ll put in a small amount of silken tofu and raw pignoli nuts or cashews into the blender, which also make it thicker and creamier. Then I’ll turn on the blender and I’ll add whatever wild ingredients—wild berries, wild nuts, even sassafras works—in there. Fruits are incredible. I’ll put some of those in the blender with the other ingredients and put that in the ice cream machine, and then put some of the fruit or wild mint in there at the end. Maybe with some taro chips; mint and taro chips go really well together. There are all kinds of ice creams you can make with this kind of basic setup. You just need a blender and an ice cream machine. The ice cream machine pays for itself, both economically and in terms of medical bills down the road. At this point I’m sixty-one. I’m fit, I’m very healthy. I have the same genes as people in my parent’s generation who are either dead or chronically ill by the time they were my age. It’s a sample of one so it’s not scientific, but I appreciate that I’m the one in the sample who is healthy. I think the wild foods and all the exercise I do, plus I love my job, that really helps in keeping me healthy.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, they’re all very important. Do you do any gardening?
Steve Brill: No, I wouldn’t know what to do with more plants; I have enough coming in from the wild. I’m strictly pre-agricultural.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s great. Well, a lot of really very interesting information. If you’re in the New York area and you want to learn more about foraging, you should definitely go to wildmanstevebrill.com and look up the foraging tours. I know that I’m going to do that.
Steve Brill: There are also a lot of resources. If you’re not in the New York area I have plants that can be growing anywhere in the country with lots of details, lots of pictures. I’m an artist, so my illustrations are on there too. And of course I have a lot of books and a DVD, which are also enjoyable. I have links to other foraging resources, including on my links page there’s a foraging section with foraging teachers, a link to a site that has a directory of foraging teachers, and some e-groups where foragers for edible plants and for mushrooms post comments and ask questions. You can learn this stuff. It’s no more difficult to learn than driving a car or swimming or any other skills that take some intelligence and that prevent boredom and make your life richer.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well I think it’s something that we need to be working on. It’s a lost knowledge, it’s a lost art, and we don’t want to lose it all because I think it’s linked somehow to our long-term future. We need these plants.
Steve Brill: Definitely.
Caryn Hartglass: Steve, thank you. This has been a really wild, delicious hour.
Steve Brill: Thank you so much for having me on and to all your listeners I have one last thing to say: happy foraging.
Caryn Hartglass: Happy foraging! Thank you. Take care.
Steve Brill: Okay, bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Bye-bye. That was Steve Brill. Wow. I learned a few things today. I hope you did too. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Have a delicious week. Bye.
Transcribed by JC, 7/20/2016