“Wild Man” Steve Brills and his daughter Violet lead educational foraging tours throughout the greater New York tri-state area, including in Central Park. Steve was arrested 30 years ago in Central Park by undercover agents on charges of criminal mischief for eating a dandelion. “That got me so much publicity that they dropped the charges, and the parks department hired me to teach foraging,” he says.
When not teaching about wild foods, Steve can often be found foraging and cooking wild meals with his eleven-year-old daughter. Violet started foraging at the age of two months and, according to her father, “knows the ins and outs of every single plant.”
I reached Steve and Violet by Skype at their home in upstate New York. They had just come in from a walk in which they found Artist’s Mushrooms and enjoyed a late first snow. They regaled me with jokes, skits, and stories as we talked.
Why are you passionate about foraging?
Steve: I started learning about wild foods many years ago, and everything I ate was better than the last thing. Wild food is healthy, fun to collect, and it tastes good.
Humans evolved with wild foods. We did not evolve with supermarkets, with food that has been bred to have a longer shelf life and contain fewer nutrients but more water so it makes more money. That’s another reason that wild foods taste so good—they are telling you that they’re the things that are going to keep you healthy. Preventative medicine is a lot better than trying to cure something once you’re sick.
It’s worked for me for decades. I’m almost sixty-seven and I’m very healthy, in part because of wild foods. I also lead an active lifestyle, do yoga and meditate.With 1 exception, members of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation died from their mid-50s to mid-60s. Through healthy eating and lifestyle, I’ve managed to go beyond their genetic precedent.
Wild plants are the best food in the world. Plus foraging is free, and it’s totally sustainable.
Violet: I grew up foraging–I’ve always loved foraging and doing things in nature.
Are there problems with pollution in urban foraging?
Steve: There are some basic, common-sense practices to avoid heavily polluted areas. Make sure you’re not collecting near heavy pollution or places where people have dumped stuff. Avoid garages, golf courses, and railroads. It’s best to be 50 feet away from street; in the middle of a park is great. Be aware of the plants, too. Wild garlic picks up a lot of pollution. The fast-growing weeds pick up the most pollution, while fruits and nuts and seeds pick up the least.
But cities aren’t the only places where food gets polluted. If you’re in the countryside, you have to watch out for agricultural runoff. And of course the food in the supermarket can be highly contaminated with herbicides and pesticides, which are even worse than the pollution you get in cities.
What would be the wider social consequences if many more people began foraging?
Steve: You get more environmental awareness, more call for protecting habitats. As long as you’re intelligent and take small quantities of plants that are growing in huge quantities, there’s no environmental impact. You get a lot more conservational efforts and habitat protection from people who are foraging for their own food. It’s extremely good for the environment.
The concept of “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” simply does not work. It’s sterile, it separates people from nature. You have kids going into the woods who are told, “don’t touch anything, stay in a straight line!” and they come back feeling like nature isn’t for them, and they spend the rest of their lives indoors with other people and electronics. On the other hand, there was an experiment in which researchers turned kids loose in the woods without any instruction, so they were free to do whatever they wanted—build forts, bang trees with sticks, dig holes. Then they did an environmental impact study on that area of the woods after the kids were through with it, and the result was that the kids had about as much impact on the area as camping, which is negligible. And this is without instruction. With instruction, it becomes way, way better.
I’ve been interested in Stinging Nettle recently. Could you tell me about that?
Steve: Sure! The little hairs on nettles work like hypodermic needles to inject formic acid and acetylcholine into you when you touch them. The needles themselves are silica based, which makes it like glass. Because they have so many hypodermic needles, they probably evolved in the South Bronx.
Nettles are extremely nutritious. People used to use nettles to cure anemia. If the anemia was caused by iron deficiency it would work; if it was caused by B12 deficiency it wouldn’t. It has very high protein content for a plant, and it has a strong flavor that makes it great in a wide variety of dishes.
Nettle is also good for allergies. A group of scientists were studying nettles, and were surprised to find that their capsules of freeze-dried nettles were disappearing. They called security, who did an investigation and found that one of the scientists was stealing them. When they asked him why, he told them he had horrible allergies, and the freeze-dried nettle capsules gave him relief.
After he was fired, the rest of the scientists did a controlled, double-blind study and found that one-third of people who have seasonal allergies get tremendous relief from stinging nettles. They couldn’t patent it, so it was never turned into a drug, and they can’t legally make claims about their health benefits on the bottle, so people are still largely unaware of its benefits.
This also dovetails with folk uses of nettles. In the 1800s in Russia, they would squeeze nettle juice through a cloth and administer it to people with chronic fatigue, anemia, and seasonal allergies. Folk uses often anticipate scientific discoveries about the uses of plants. Unfortunately, scientists rarely make it very far because the money runs out, because it all comes down to whether you can patent something.
What’s it like working as a father-daughter team?
Violet: It’s fun teaching together—we each teach different parts of the tours. It’s also fun foraging together, for example pulling up sassafras, you need two people to do that. If someone misses something, the other one finds it.
Steve: The only problem is she’s faster than me, so she finds all the plants before I do. And she steals all my jokes. But it’s a lot of fun; she’s certainly the best partner I’ve ever had. She started foraging when she was two months old. After eleven years of this, she knows every single plant inside out. And we do a lot of cooking together with the plants.
In fact, we just made a wonderful recipe together using Chickweed. Put Chickweed in a food processor with field garlic, paprika, nutmeg, drained silken tofu, chopped cloves of garlic, a little onion, and dash of seasoned salt. In a few seconds it’s a wonderful dip.
Violet, how do you see yourself continuing your journey of foraging as you grow older?
Violet: I will lead my own tour later this year. I’d like to continue leading more and more tours, making connections with people and teaching. I’m also learning a lot about birds and minerals. Just the today, I saw a million common grackles flying across the sky, and the whole sky looked black.
Do you have any advice for new foragers?
Steve: Foraging is about as difficult as learning to drive a car. If you come on ten tours in different places at different times of the year, we’ll have a hard time showing you anything new. It’s not as difficult as becoming a martial artist or learning to play a piano concerto.
Find a teacher if there is one around. I also created an app, Wild Edibles Forage, which has a huge amount of information and visual aids that wouldn’t fit in a book. I have also have several books available, including a basic foraging book, a recipe book, and one about foraging with kids. There is also information available on my website.
Violet: Start out with basic, easy-to-recognize plants. Learn some basic botany so you can identify characteristics like lobed leaves, alternate vs. opposite leaves, and what a basal rosette or a taproot is. Learn them one at a time and practice in nature, and you’ll be surprised how fast you can identify things.
Anything else to add?
I just want more people to go out in nature and enjoy foraging. And to protect the non-renewable resources… habitats, the atmosphere, the ocean and endangered species. And I would like to see more children getting out and experiencing nature hands-on, too.