|Wildman Steve Brill|
A few weeks ago, while perusing the internet periphery, Anthony noticed that Wildman Steve was giving a Wild Foraging tour in Central Park during one of Anthony's weekends off. We made reservations and were excited about going. In the last few years, ever since doing some volunteering in our local park and coming eye-ball to eye-ball with the strangest, most unusual looking, slightly perverse fungi I had ever seen-- the morel-- let's just say that after our volunteer coordinator, a park ranger and botanist, started sharing just how many edibles grew in and around that park, we were hooked. Anthony and I took pleasure in seeking out what the wild had to offer-- both our medicine chest and our dinner plate, but aside from a handful of volunteering expeditions with our ranger friend, Anthony and I were learning as we went along-- and from experience and the knowledge read in book after book on the subject-- that is not always the best thing to do when dealing with wild edibles. We thought, what better way to jump start what had been a pretty stagnant year as far as growing things were concerned thanks to our wonderful local drought, than to don our hiking boots, grab our pocket knives, and learn from the king of wild edibles, Wildman Steve.
I have really mixed feelings about the experience, primarily because I had that first really indelible experience all those years ago-- and without learning from Brill then, I wouldn't have had the gumption to seek out more knowledge myself. I wouldn't have taken up herbalism, and wouldn't have done a great many of the things I do now with plants. He is a brilliant instructor, an invaluable resource, and I would highly recommend anyone with passing interest in medicinal and edible plants to seek out Wildman Steve for a tour and check out his many publications on his site. His website is also chock full of information.
But the tour I went on a few weeks ago was not the tour I went on 20+ years ago. Radically, unbelievably, and somewhat ruefully different. I'm not sorry I went, by any stretch of the imagination. But, perhaps, in future, Wildman Steve might offer some more of those invaluable tips and techniques that he did all those years ago.
First, let me say, aside from meeting a few really cool, really personable folks, New Yorkers by and large have no idea what to do with green and growing things. I was dumbfounded at just how many folks don't know the difference between poison ivy and red clover. That's not exactly something to blame them for. City folk are just that, city folk. We live in the suburbs and many of our neighbors have no more involvement with green and growing things other than to pay for the lawn service to chop, mow, and tame. But, for people attending a wild edibles tour, I was still a bit confused at the lack of knowledge that I suppose is a wide-spread cultural phenomena.
Granted, poison ivy is a tough one to identify if you think a plant is a plant is a plant. It's often very easy to confuse raspberry or blackberry for poison ivy if you're unfamiliar, but even after having poison ivy identified more than a handful of times by Brill and by others on the tour, there were folks who were just careening into patches (and I'm not talking about the few sneaky small plants that were very hard to see since it is early in the season, but rather large patches) and attempting to harvest the poison ivy itself.
While Brill identified a fair number of plants, and explained that he was almost regretful about the area we were working in-- just inside Central Park at 103 street on the West side of the park-- because so many plants grew in such a small locale, I don't feel we were able to see as many plants as we could have. The tour instructions were very clear-- be at the meet-up spot at 11:45 sharp and that we wouldn't wait for stragglers. And yet, almost 30 minutes later, we were still waiting for stragglers. The tour ended on time, so that's 30 minutes of time I consider wasted, and if you combine that with the unusually long lunch break-- more than 30 minutes-- that was an hour of time that was spent not doing much of anything other than watch Brill entertain some really young children that honestly should not have been on this tour.
As a teacher, I know the value of teaching young children the respect for nature. But, on my down time, there are 2 thing I really can't stand being forced to deal with-- unruly children and unruly dogs. Blessedly we had no canines accompany us on the tour, but the sheer number of them running rampant through areas of the park were frustration enough. By and large the children on the tour, all under the age of 10, were well behaved, but when you have them under 3? And throwing dirt around while people are eating lunch? Not cool by any stretch of the imagination.
The other thing that did turn me off, and may prevent me from attending another tour anytime soon, is, for lack of a better term, the hawking of wares. As many folks could guess, Steve Brill's livelihood comes from these tours, his other talks or presentations, his books, and now, his new media applications. The tour cost was a suggested $20, which is more than reasonable. We were told when making the reservations that he'd have books and materials available for sale. I was eager to see what he had and did wind up purchasing a beautiful edition of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not so Wild) Places. If I had the cash, I would have gotten a color edition of his Shoots and Greens of Early Spring. Initially, while waiting for the late-comers, Brill showed off his brainchild, the WildEdibles app.
In a nutshell, Brill has created, with the help of app developers, what really and truly has to be one of the best Apps for Apple devices. His WildEdibles app is something that I would be all over, if I had an I-whatsit. It's beautifully designed, and, if you're inclined to take your new media with you when you want to unplug in the wild arms of Mother Nature, it's right up your alley. It's helpful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that all the information presented in his various volumes are included in the app. It's more compact to take an app with you than several books, and after being utterly disappointed at several of the other wild edible pocket guides I've bought over the years, it's something that I'm eager to try-- once I get an apple device or once the developers make one for Blackberry devices. But, my one problem with the app, and with technology in general-- it's more transient than many people realize. It's a wonderful tool, but what happens if we face a day when motherboards and silicone chips can't be relied on? It's like with those navigator thingies everyone uses in their car. The more you use 'em the less likely you are to use-- or know how to use-- a map. (For the geeks out there, ATMOS anyone? Google it if you're not in the know.)
The WildEdibles app is certainly not ATMOS, but I think Brill referred to it far too much. Initially, I thought he was referring to it to literally eat up the 30 minutes we were twiddling our thumbs waiting for a few latecomers that actually showed up, and a few others that didn't have the decency to call and cancel their reservation. But, every single stop we made along the tour, the app came out and Brill showed us the brilliant and beautiful illustrations and photos of the plant in question. It was a sunny day, and, after the first 3 times he pulled out his I-pad to show a particular plant on the app, I was completely turned off. I could barely see the screen, and when the plant is literally growing right there, I would have much rather him do what he did 20 odd years ago: explain what to look for at each stage of the plant's life cycle, explain markers in the locale on how to recognize that this plant might be found in this area, discuss harvesting techniques (or reasons not to harvest), and verbally describe other information about the plant. I understand the app is helpful to show you images of what the plant looks like at early Spring, in Summer, in Winter, etc. But, when we are as a nation and a species facing the difficulties inherent in becoming too visually oriented-- what will people do without an app? Would they bother to purchase Brill's brilliant books? No. They'd opt for the 52 playing cards that one lady needed to be told didn't contain all the information in his 3 books because in a deck of playing cards, there's alas only 52 cards-- and in a book, well, there are more pages.
Yes, Brill certainly did talk about the plant. But, there was too much show and tell using the app as a focal point rather than the plants themselves. If I wanted a multi-media presentation, I would have stayed home and Googled the plants. And while I will be sure to purchase the app when I have the device it works on, I do wish Brill would have pointed people as heartily to his books as places to get more information.
My final quasi-complaint would have to be about the lack of information presented on the ecosystem and harvesting. No information was given about sustainable harvesting practices, about how delicate the ecosystems are where many of these plants are found, and even which plants are hideously invasive so when you see them you can harvest them relentlessly, but still with a mind towards what you're doing and how you do it. However, he did mention that you don't want to plant things like Lambs Quarters in your yard unless you really, really, really like them. There were some college students who were discussing environmentalism, herbalism, tinctures and had a certain degree of knowledge about plants, but they had zero qualms about tearing up the forest floor, damaging some nearby plants to rip out a few saplings. There were folks who were lustily tearing up saplings before they were told they were trying to harvest the wrong ones. Other folks harvested the plant in question, but tossed them on the ground as being not “worth it” for some reason.
Overall, I was rather shocked at how callously many of the folks did their harvesting. It was like a swarm of locusts picked over the park and while Brill did talk about his arrest-- he didn't remind people they were harvesting in a public park. I do my harvesting in public parks, and I think everyone has a right to-- after all, we do pay taxes-- but you need to do it mindfully and not wantonly. I also wouldn't harvest when scads of people are around for the simple fact that I don't want to get reported to the blasted authorities and arrested for, as Brill put it, eating a dandelion. In an age when you can get arrested for protesting too closely to a nationally valued person or place, or when you can risk having Uncle Sam lay claim to your goods and property because we're living in tough times-- what doors are being opened when people aren't told about the potential risks of wild harvesting? Or simply told to keep your harvesting under the radar? Or, to balance your harvesting by doing something simple like volunteering in your local park? My husband and I often do our harvesting expeditions while volunteering and cleaning up our local green spaces. You should never take without giving back and I really didn't see much giving back on this tour, with some very few exceptions of the folks my husband and I spent time speaking with.
There were also no tips on what areas were good to harvest, and what should you pass up. For example, you don't want to harvest immediately near a roadway because of car emissions, or near a gravel path because you don't know what materials might leach from the gravel into the surrounding area. You must be aware if the area was treated with chemicals and you certainly do NOT want to harvest anything in an area around dog shit or brilliant, juicy patches of poison ivy. Likewise, nothing was noted about how to recognize if the plants you're harvesting have diseases like mold or other fungal issues that you don't want to be ingesting. While Brill did note that when there's some insect infestation, you'll want to pass up those plants, but I didn't hear him discuss the optimal times for harvesting. He did note here and there when a plant was “past it's prime” but that was about it. There are huge variables when harvesting anything in the wild, but you do need to understand some basics about smart harvesting practices.
On the plus side-- and there were many-- I got so see more than a dozen plants that I'm familiar with on the page but not in the wild. We became intimately familiar with Chickweed, Poorman's Pepper, Common Mallow, and Japanese Knotweed. And if it wasn't for the information presented in this tour, my meals this week would have been pretty bland. I was also able to stave off a cold and recover in a matter of hours instead of days thanks to several of the plants Brill helped us to identify-- one being Chickweed.
It's a plant I'm familiar with in passing, and in dry form. Years ago, while first experimenting with herbal remedies and while nursing my cat through some tough times with diabetes, Chickweed tea was one of the remedies. I was told it was a mild pain reliever for her arthritis and would help keep her nutrients up when the disease was getting under control. But, over the years, I fell out of touch with Chickweed and I had no idea what it looked like in the wild.
|Chickweed close up|
Last summer, a strange, creeping plant sprung up all over our neighborhood. My brother, who lives next door, complained about it, and I sought identification help from our ranger friend, to no avail (probably because I kept forgetting to bring her a sample and she couldn't identify it from my verbal descriptions). This little but virulent plant was identified on the tour as none other than Chickweed. It has a pleasant grassy, corn-like taste and can be eaten raw, made into pestos, thrown in soup, or steeped in tea. The entire plant is edible, but from the stems up. The roots are a bit fibrous and not interesting. But, Brill noted it was a plant widely used to help convalescents and people suffering from illness since it helps revitalize the system.
Over the past several years, I've struggled with health issues and after having a stroke in 2008, my constitution isn't the best. I very easily fall prey to colds and just periods of being run-down. The walking tour was probably the most walking I've done in several months, so I was predictably run down by that evening and ready to drop by the time we got home. Perhaps because of the exposure to pollen, for the first time in years, I was having serious asthmatic issues, and was concerned that eating the wild edibles brought on some chest complaints. But, instead of toss out the little batch of Chickweed I had gathered on the tour and the few small leaves of Common Mallow, I tossed them into a bowl of broth and had them for dinner Saturday evening-- and again the next day for breakfast. Monday, I gathered some Chickweed from the yard, along with some violets-- leaves and flowers, common wood sorrel, and branched out into unknown territory-- Wisteria blossoms. Let's just say, after eating like this for a day and a half, I had no chest complaints. I had energy and my allergy symptoms had all but disappeared.
|Gathering wild edibles|
My overall impressions of the Wild Edibles Tour with Wildman Steve Brill? Regardless of my complaints, I highly and wholeheartedly recommend him and his work as one of the best resources out there on wild edibles. I do plan on attending more of his tours, but will be more prepared-- in terms of my own expectations. I went seeking knowledge, and I did find that. But, the world today isn't what it was when I first went on this kind of tour all those years ago. People are less tuned into the world around them and if folks like Wildman Steve are to make an impact, then unfortunately there needs to be a common language spoken-- and that's the language of the App.
My only request of Wildman Steve-- have tour-goers leave their really young children at home. I know that telling folks that children aren't allowed on the tour would limit who would attend, but kids under the age of 4 really don't belong on a wild harvesting tour, regardless of how cute they are.
Wild Edibles Scramble Salad
¼ cup cream cheese
¼ cup milk
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese + parmesan for shaving ontop
red alaea sea salt
freshly cracked pepper
2-3 clusters of wisteria blossoms
several handfuls of: violet blossoms, violet leaves, wood sorrel & chickweed
mesclun greens or other baby lettuce
several leaves of young swiss chard or beet greens
5-6 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme
handful fresh dill fronds, chopped
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp dijon mustard
red wine vinegar or kombucha
a good quality extra virgin olive oil
optional: asparagus, wild garlic (sometimes also called wild onions, wild chives, or onion grass)
- In a small ball jar, combine the dill fronds, mustard, acid (kombucha or red wine vinegar), honey, extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of red salt and freshly cracked pepper. Put a lid on the jar and shake lustily. Set aside at room temperature for the flavors to combine.
- Take your time washing all your wild harvested greens and flowers. Wash in cold water, soak the blossoms for a few minutes, and gently toss in a colander to remove excess water. If you have a salad spinner, that would work best to remove as much water as possible from your washed greens.
- In a medium to small bowl, begin mixing the cream cheese and milk with a fork. You won't completely soften the cream cheese, but will be able to get it to break down a little. A few lumps are perfectly fine.
- Add eggs, pepper, salt, and beat together.
- Fold in grated parmesan. Gently tear the chickweed into bite sized pieces and fold into the egg mixture. If you're using chopped asparagus and/or chopped wild garlic, add them at this stage as well and fold in gently.
- Take one of the wisteria clusters and gently pick off the blossoms. Fold them into the egg mixture. Once combined set the egg aside.
- While a pan is warming on the stove, build your salad on each plate. Layer baby greens, chard, a little chickweed, violet leaves, violet blossoms, and wood sorrel leaves. Top with shaved parmesan and a nice drizzle of your vinaigrette.
- When your pan is hot, add a little olive oil to coat the bottom and pour in the egg mixture. Let stand for 30 seconds to 1 minute to firm up and then begin scrambling the egg. If you want an omelette, then don't scramble the eggs. But I generally find the wild edibles add extra water that makes the omelette too runny. Scrambling cooks off the liquid and leaves a nice fluffy egg.
- Once your eggs are ready, add them to your salad. Shave a little extra parmesan ontop, crack a little pepper, and add a sprinkle of red salt. Enjoy while hot with a piece of crusty bread.