The gray-bearded man wore a pith helmet and an oversized camping pack as he stood outside Van Cortlandt Park’s West 242nd Street entrance on a recent Saturday afternoon. Armed with a spade and a green iPad case hanging off his belt, Steve Brill prepared to lead a 25-member safari into the wilds of the city’s third largest park.
An odd sight for the Bronx, perhaps, but otherwise just an average weekend for the self-described “wild man,” who claims to be the northeast’s leading expert in urban foraging.
A vegan, Brill first started exploring the city’s green spaces for under-appreciated delicacies more than 30 years ago. In 1986, two undercover park rangers busted Brill for leading unauthorized tours of Central Park and eating dandelions along the way.
The national media picked up the case, and eventually the charges were dropped. The city’s parks department even hired him to give those same tours for a few years, sans consumption of raw plants.
Today, Brill is back on the wrong side of the law, though he says he doesn’t have problems with meddling authorities anymore. A parks department spokesperson said urban foraging is “against park rules” because it can disrupt delicate ecosystems or endanger uneducated diners. Brill points out he’s educating hopeful urban foragers on what’s edible and what’s not.
Besides, most of the plants he picks are invasive, like the garlic mustard biennial he makes into a creamy pesto.
“I basically got into foraging through cooking,” Brill explained to his Van Cortlandt Park tour group recently as they munched down on chips he fried up using the common plantain, a green leafy weed the group found 20 feet from the sidewalk along Broadway.
“I’ve been trying out different recipes for almost 37 years. Thousands of recipes, and I don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface.”
As Brill guided his safari party away from Broadway deeper into the park, he educated the adventurous gastronomes on which weeds were tasty and which were deadly. Lepidium virginicum — aka “poor man’s pepper” — works great as flavoring for roasted potatoes and is loaded with vitamins. Oxalis corniculata, or yellow woodsorrel, looks like a clover with heart-shaped leaves, and tends to grow at the edge of the tree line. It also adds a lemony tang to any dish.
What about white snakeroot, a flowering herb that grows abundantly along the trails of Van Cortlandt Park?
“If any of you are murderers, this is the one for you,” Brill said. The plant is deadly to humans thanks to the toxin tremetol, which causes tremors and extreme vomiting. When European settlers first arrived in North America, their livestock would consume whatever greenery was available. The toxin would often get expelled through cow’s milk, causing humans who drank it to get “milk sickness.”
Historians believe Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died from milk sickness in 1818.
A midwife named Anna Bixby discovered white snakeroot was the source of milk sickness in the mid-1800s, with the help of a Shawnee elder in Illinois, according to medical legend. Brill lamented Bixby’s contributions were lost to history and not taught in schools.
“You weren’t supposed to do science in the 1800s or the 1900s or even the 21st century if you were a woman,” Brill explained, an example of the one-liners and quips he used to catch his audience off guard, but keep them attentive with laughter and the occasional groan.
He warned the group not to ever burn poison ivy because there was only one man alive who could avoid inhaling the plant’s noxious fumes — Bill Clinton, who once famously declared he “didn’t inhale.”
“He’s a character,” said Gabe Rodriguez, a New York City field agent for travel company Atlas Obscura’s “adventure" arm, the group that organized the savory safari. Although Brill keeps his schedule booked with talks and tours of Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester and other outer-borough parks, his June 1 tour of Van Cortlandt Park was his only scheduled appearance in the Bronx all year.
Many of the participants were from outside the borough, including Rodriguez, who is from Brooklyn and was visiting Vannie for the first time. Rema Venu, a UNICEF official, came from Flushing for the trip with her friends from the United Nations. Venu dabbled in urban foraging before, picking wild herbs and spices in New York she recognizes from India, her home country.
“Sometimes you even see fennel growing” in Queens, Venu noted as Brill shouted “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!” behind her and stomped a spade into the ground to dig up more tasty treats. He said shouting the president’s name fueled him with a fury he needed to accomplish great feats of strength.
Brill, an avid environmentalist, fancies himself a political humorist. At one point, he encouraged the tour group to come closer to see a detailed drawing of one plant, and to have a “Joe Biden moment.”
At the end of the tour, Brill plugged his five books on plants and urban foraging, encouraging participants to connect him with other institutions in the Bronx to schedule additional tours. He particularly enjoys working with children who he introduces to conservationism with the “gateway drug” of urban foraging.
Finally, Brill ended the tour in a way only he could: Producing a version of the “Looney Tunes” theme song with popping noises he made by clapping over his open mouth. The orchestration took about 30 seconds and ended with Brill reciting Porky Pig’s classic incantation.
“That’s all folks.”