Monday, November 23, 2009

Foraging with Steve Brill

Ready to forage, we gathered at 11.45am on the southern side of Grand Army Plaza, outside Prospect Park, and stood about for quite a while waiting for indemnity slips to be signed (not, as my father the lawyer says, worth the paper they're signed on) and to have a look at Steve Wildman Brill's books, laid out on the stone benches.

There are three; Edible and Medicinal Plants, published in 1994 by Harper Collins, with lovely illustrations by Evelyn Dean. Shoots and Green of Early Spring looks worthwhile too, is self-published and features Steve's own decent drawings,  plus a vegan cookbook.

Then we waited a bit more while the books were packed and put into a faraway car.

It was a pretty day, clear-edged and blue and full of fallen leaves underfoot.

Soon Steve was a-digging and our group of 33 clustered close.

Here he is holding up a burdock root, before setting us loose in the leaf litter. I shoveled away happily in the undergrowth, digging up clumps of earthworms and feeling triumphant when I got to the root...Cook it and it turns into artichoke, we were told.
It was a very well-mixed group, sporting every stripe and colour, which kind of surprised me. Young and mature, and beige and brown. He and she.

Above: Foraging Position No. 1.

Below: Foraging Position No. 2.

Field garlic, Allium vineale. Well-versed foragers and gatherers of wild foods must yawn at it, but of the whole expedition, this was the most useful and worthwhile find for me. In fact, as I type, I am full of it. Field garlic, I mean: sweet little organic roast chicken with field garlic, breadcrumb, feta and lemon stuffing for dinner. [For an April 2010 harvest of field garlic and how I prepared it, click here...]

Vince pointed out a lot more clumps to me during the day, which we dug up. Will post kitchen pictures later.

The lady below presented Steve with a massive artist's polypore, about 16" across, that she had broken off a tree trunk, and on which she had doodled a caricature of him. Then she handed out business cards. She does parties.

I had some issues. Climbing en masse over fences in the park to get to oyster mushrooms, and later persimmons, and the poor old fungus...

The Frenchie holding a Kentucky coffee tree pod - Gymnocladus dioicus. I roasted the beans this evening and heard them explode all over the oven. Heat too high. Did not think to cover. Next time.

In late November, native jewelweed. Impatiens capensis. Weird. Should have been killed by frost by now, but it must be protected by the woods.

My grubby paws holding the seed capsules.

Seed and exploded capsule. The fat seeds were nice enough.Nutty?

The oyster mushrooms were very beautiful. Steve hopped the fence to get at them, and distributed the bounty. We ate a tiny saucerful tonight as an amuse bouche.
A large patch of Aegopodium podagraria - what I know as bishop weed, and also called gout weed. It is highly invasive, as I learned a long time ago, so gather ye while ye may.

The young leaves tasted herbal in the carroty, parsley-y way. I brought several back, but after cleaning all the field garlic, did not find them worth the effort as far as root-scraping went. The leaves I would search out in the spring time, I think.

Rambling on...

Beautiful leaves of black cherry - Prunus serotina.

And who knew that lamb's quarters turned red in fall? Not I.

I spotted some puffballs growing in the woodchippy mulch under some tree. I can't wait to find young ones. As a child, I was convinced that the clouds of spores could kill if inhaled.

My old friend the stinkhorn - seen for the first time earlier this year and ID'd for me at the time by Paula, I think.

These are the babies, called eggs, said Steve, who also said they were edible but horrid. I collected one at once.

Shaking tiny persimmons from the persimmon tree - Diospyros virginiana. Over-ripe and soft, they split when hitting the ground, but were very sweet.

The persimmon was fenced in. Twice. There were very small saplings planted around it, protected by black pipe.

Everyone just barreled on over. Vince started to look down his long French nose.

A little farther on was another persimmon, unfenced with prettier fruit on the branches. 

Shake tree, get fruit. Better tasting, too.

A very enjoyable four hours, with some concerns: I'd like to know, from the person leading, what is native versus invasive or just plain introduced, in terms of renewable sources of food and what one ought to conserve, or plant or not plant in one's own garden. Steve did tell me that he doesn't garden. Latin names also would be helpful in some cases, to fill in my gaps, but that's why we have Google, and most people are not interested.

We ran out of time to see the sassafras trees, which I was rather looking forward to. Fewer songs on the 'brillophone'  may have speeded up the trip and seen more plants covered.

But certainly I'd like to do it again in another season, to learn more. Steve is a very good teacher and patient. I'm happy to train in these wonderful, big parks, and look forward to taking some more knowledge into proper woods and fields.

And a special thank you to The Frenchie for lending moral support (and carrying the picnic!). He is not a natural born forager, and manfully nibbled at gout weed and garlic before he started to think rather hard about dogs.


  1. dit klink na baie pret. en die foraging positions is hilarious. wild garlic. leuk.

  2. years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, the rangers for Prospect Park did a horseback tour. Which was intersesting on many levels.

  3. Yeah, I'm afraid the overwhelming presence of garbage is what will stick most to my impressionable mind...

  4. My wife picks the wild garlic occasionally, I say dog pee. I prefer the high up fruits to the roots and shoots.

    I think its preferable that hoards do not topple fences to get at some free fruit.

    I think, maybe like yourself, I would enjoy this not so much so that I may forage, but so that I can ID the park, the woods, and have a greater understanding of the plant world I like so much.

    In spring, Poke Salet!

  5. I would think foragers would need an understanding of the ecological context of the foods they're foraging, and a healthy respect for the environment, not trampling around protected persimmon samplings, tearing shelf fungus off the stumps, etc.


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