Environment / Food

“Wildman” brings Hunts Point closer to its roots

Regina Cornwell

Steve Brill leads a weed discovery tour in Hunts Point.

Urban forager brings culinary and environmental lessons to The Point

Armed with garbage bags and video cameras, a small crew gathered at The Point one cool and rainy afternoon last month and took to the streets. They were looking for something good to eat, and they had no plans to stop in a local restaurant.

“Hope everyone came on an empty stomach,” said Steve “Wildman” Brill, the group’s leader.

Brill is a legend in what is called the urban foraging movement, and was here to lead this group of two dozen eager foragers on a tour to see what edible plants they could find growing wild in the neighborhood.

Brill arrived dressed in a green windbreaker and khaki cargo pants, and personally introduced himself to each participant with a warm smile and a sturdy handshake. He then led the group toward the entrance of Hunts Point Riverside Park and immediately the foraging began.

He spotted a small pink flower that goes by the name of red clover, often used to prevent indigestion and relieve a cough. But it came with a warning from Brill: “These are safe to eat when fresh, but they can be harmful when dead and dry.”

Regina Cornwell

Steve Brill at work.

Brill comes by the name Wildman honestly. He pulled a petal from the red clover and popped it in his mouth, and the entire group quickly followed suit. Red clover can be found in health food stores, but Brill finds the freshly picked variety to be a lot more beneficial.

“They sell you the old stuff, so you might as well save your money and pick them
yourself,” Brill said.

The group continued the tour throughout the park, finding burdock, a daisy-like plant whose roots and leaves are used for medicinal purposes. The participants also passed around their own findings, discussing each one with Brill.

David Dukes, a Coop City resident, began foraging less then a year ago and has been looking forward to attending the tour. This was his first time attending one live, after months of watching them on YouTube. He brought his collection along to show Brill, in hopes of learning more about the plants he had gathered himself.

“Me and my 12-year-old son go out foraging together and he loves it,” Dukes said. “He already joined his school’s gardening club.”

Brill’s reputation has expanded since he was arrested in 1986 for eating a dandelion in Central Park. Undercover rangers watched from afar as he conducted one of his four-hour tours, then arrested him once they saw him taking a bite of the weed. “What the previous Parks commissioner told me was that they were afraid of frivolous lawsuits if they tolerated foraging,” Brill said. All charges were dropped and Brill continued his tours. He was later hired by the city to lead tours in Central Park.

Brill’s tour in Hunts Point was sponsored by inClimate: Climate Change Solutions, Awareness and Action, a New York-based non-profit organization that brings awareness to global warming and its effects on the environment. They in turn curated seven projects including Uncultivated, a project focused on wild plants within urban landscapes. Lynn Cazabon, the creator of Uncultivated, brought Brill in to help residents connect with the local environment. The project seems to have worked.

“Wildlife exists in the Bronx,” declared Lucia Hernandez, a Hunts Point resident and avid gardener, who attended the tour. This is the second InClimate event she has attended.

Following the foraging session, the group returned to The Point to begin a culinary demonstration and cook up what they had found. Brill had given Cazabon a list of ingredients needed for the dishes he would be preparing for the culinary demonstration in advance.

They used weeds that Cazabon had pre-planted and harvested, but that already existed in the park. Local high school students who attend The Point’s after-school program joined the group.

Prepped with colorful bandanas around their heads, the group lined up in the kitchen. The first dish they prepared was “Wild Bronx Salad,” consisting of the wild greens that were found on the tour, organic grapes, toasted almonds and green apple.

The group’s favorite dish was the Beluga lentils with epazote, a short-lived perennial, otherwise known as wormseed, that is often found in Spanish cuisine. “Many people buy them in supermarkets without knowing they can be found right in the neighborhood,” said Regina Cornwell, founder of inClimate. Using a large saucepan to sauté the beans, Brill tied the epazote and bay leaves in cheesecloth, making a tea ball to infuse the dish.

Stick pudding was the wildlife dessert, consisting of black birch twigs, which added a wintergreen flavor to the tapioca pudding. The twigs were discarded once the flavor was absorbed into the pudding.

The group made sure even the forks were green, since the purpose of the tour and culinary demonstration centered on the environment. The utensils were all made of recyclable birch wood.

“I’m very proud of all the people that started with me and also went out on their own,” said Brill. “It feels good to know that I can inspire others to be just as wild as me.”

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