Twenty of us, including five Japanese, a Frenchman and a mother with a child named Isis, gathered just inside the 103rd Street entrance to New York’s Central Park on a sunny Saturday. We were waiting for Wildman Steve Brill; each prepared to invest four hours and $20 ($10 for Isis) searching with him for edible roots and berries in the heart of the great metropolis.
On the dot of 2:30, the Wildman arrived, glinting glasses and grizzled beard, pith helmet and backpack, looking like an illustration in a children’s adventure book. A brief greeting, a pause while we signed waivers absolving the Wildman of responsibility for our wellbeing, and we were off to explore the flora.
WSB set a brisk pace but then we had a lot of ground to cover. Central Park is 50 blocks long and three blocks wide, its 843 acres stretching from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. A complex Victorian landscape of man-made lakes and fields, lawns and woodlands, it’s normally avoided on foot because of some highly publicised crimes, but much admired from afar. Buildings with a view of the park command some of the city’s highest rents.
The first strike came almost immediately. “Lambs quarter!” WSB plucked a leaf from a dusty bush growing beside the path and nibbled it thoughtfully. “Use this in a salad,” he advised. Leaves were passed around. Considering all the things that I feared it might taste of, growing as close to the path as it was, I was relieved my sample tasted like spinach.
The next discovery, conveniently adjacent, was ‘poor man’s pepper seeds’. The Wildman stripped a handful of the tiny pellets from a stalk. They tested like pepper-flavoured ball bearings. He intoned a recipe for ‘poor man’s pepper seed mayonnaise’ and a woman who explained she ran a restaurant jotted it down. Epizote (‘a hot and spicy Mexican herb’) was another find for her notebook as were the foxtail seeds (‘add to pastry’) that were spotted near the park’s baseball pitch.
In the course of a sunny afternoon, with Manhattan’s skyscrapers glittering in the distance against a pale blue sky, we glimpsed the pristine ‘great lawn’, trudged under and around many of the upper park’s 26.000 trees and skirted the 106-acre reservoir. We sampled enough edible seeds and berries to have kept Little Red Riding Hood alive for a week in the woods. At the foot of a flagpole, there was mallow (tastes like cheese) and a few steps further on chickweed (tastes like maize which is why chickens like it). Also Hawthorn fruit, ripe and red on the ground near the reservoir, which tasted like mango.
We picked small dark cherries from the trees and cracked black walnuts with a rock. The Wildman enthused over the taste of a shark’s tooth fungus snapped from an oak tree, but there wasn’t enough to go around. My personal favourites were hackberries. You spit out the centres, but what’s left tastes like M&Ms.
The high point of the afternoon came in the shape of a tall, forlorn looking weed found growing just off the bridle path. Burdock. “The Irish made a poultice of the leaves to cure ringworm, ” the Wildman announced with a glance in my direction, “but the root can be boiled and tastes like potato.” He produced a short-handled spade from his backpack and with considerable difficulty pried up a knobbly six-inch long root, like an anaemic carrot. “Ah so! Gobo!” the Japanese chorused, awe struck as children who have just seen a rabbit pulled from a magician’s hat.
“Gobo is worth its weight in gold in Japan,” the Wildman explained, handing it over to them.
On this high note the safari came to an end. Anyway, Isis had picked some poison ivy (a skin irritant) mistaking it for ground ivy (use as tea) and wanted to go home. The Frenchman and the restaurant lady were discussing having a coffee together. The group dispersed in ones and twos, most carrying little plastic bags filled with leaves and seeds.
Before heading off with my cache of nature’s M&Ms, I asked the Wildman if it wasn’t a bit iffy to be digging up roots and picking berries, in effect, removing park property. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted,” I was arrested once on that charge by two undercover men posing as tourists. “They made their move when I ate a dandelion. All the papers ran pictures of me in handcuffs. It made the city a laughing stock and they backed down. Since then I’ve been written up in the National Geographic. I wouldn’t advise you to go harvesting on your own, but they turn a blind eye to my groups now”.
To book your own outing with the Wildman, visit Bill’s website: wildmanstevebrill.com