Let's be honest, the idea of eating weeds, grass, and flowers in Central Park is a bit strange. Gross in fact. It may elicit thoughts like: “Dog's pee in Central Park” and “Strange people do all kind's of creepy things in Central Park.” Do I really want to eat the very weeds that have been, well, pee'd on, or maybe worse?
Then I met Wildman Steve Brill. Wildman began offering foraging tours in Central Park nearly 30 years ago. They became popular after he was arrested for eating a dandelion green straight off the park grounds in the 70's. As it turns out, getting arrested is great publicity. After the charges were dropped and Wildman was released, his foraging empire was born.
Wildman is quite the character. A Willy Wonka type. Wild edible food is his chocolate, and on tour days, Central Park is his chocolate factory.
I met the tour group Saturday morning at the 72nd street entrance of Central Park, my sister Erika came along (actually my sister Erika took me along, this was her idea.) We were told to bring; diggers, gloves, bags for the food we would forage, and a whistle in case we got lost.
The tour was slated to be four (4) hours long. Four hours of foraging for wild edibles in Central Park? How much edible food could there possibly be? How about over 100 species! That's right, over 100 species of plants in Central Park, in the middle of the concrete jungle, are edible.
I was fascinated. Wildman began the tour a mere 5 feet from the park's entrance at the Wisteria Pergola. I have walked past the gnarled Wisteria vines in Central Park for 15 years, they are gorgeous and a sure sign that summer is just around the corner. Edible? I had no idea. Erika climbed right up and plucked a bunch for us. Wildman suggested tossing them into pancakes, or simply dressing up a salad with the blossoms. Taste? Interesting actually. A bit citrus, a hint of cucumber, a mild fragrant perfume-y finish. Yes, only five steps into the park and I am eating a flower!
During the next three plus hours I marveled at the edible offerings in Central Park. Wild garlic, sassafras root, bitter doc greens, common blue violet (both the leaves of the plant and the flower,) common spice bush, and more.
We certainly didn't get to all 100 species, but I was utterly satisfied by this new world. In addition to Wildman's outrageous foraging knowledge he is also quite the chef, he has a beautiful vegan cookbook for sale filled with hundreds of recipes for these lesser known greens, flowers, and plants. He is kind enough to share his food thoughts throughout the trip so in addition to coming home with a large bag of FREE food my brain was swimming with ideas on how to cook them.
I always tell clients to eat food as close to their natural state as possible, this foraging trip opened my eyes to a whole new world of wild free food right in my “urban” backyard.
One piece of advice: pay attention to Wildman. As he was pointing out poison ivy and very thoroughly explaining how to distinguish it from other plants, one rash-loving participant reached up and grabbed a big ‘ol handful. I wonder how many times that happens on tour. You are safe to eat the wild food that Wildman points out, but you definitely want to keep your ears open.
Check out my Wildflower Ice Cream Recipe.
To get more of Wildman Steve Brill check out his website.
I highly recommend his live tours, his vegan cookbook OR if you aren't in the New York area check out his new Wild Edibles App (available on Itunes, Wild Edibles by Wildman Steve Brill) With Wildman's amazing knowledge and super interactive app you can forage anywhere!
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