Wild Edible Basics, by "Wildman" Steve Brill

A 56 Minute VHS Video

Canopy Media, New York, 2004

Reviewed by Chef John J. Vyhnanek, May 2004

Available on his website (http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com) for a Special Introductory Price--$18 including shipping.  Good Cooking was recently informed that a DVD is coming soon!

Copyright azuswebworks.comI couldn't believe that you could be arrested for picking a dandelion. I was visiting in Greenwich Village (New York City) in the spring of 1986 when Nan, my mother-in-law, pointed out a news story about "Wildman" Steve Brill's arrest for picking a dandelion in Central Park during one of his field walks. I couldn't believe it, this was one more New York City crazy-type thing that gives the city a bad rap. To me it was in the league of the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees and then bemoaning the fact since then---you know, the Damn Yankees! I grew up in Columbia County just up the Hudson River from Manhattan; in the country, dandelions were regarded as weeds and lawn spoilers, yet to some they were wonderful flowers that made golden and tasty wine. Yes, you can even eat dandelions, the leaves when well washed are fabulous in salad and the blossoms can also be incorporated as a garnish. Anyway, most everyone involved with Brill's case, except the authorities, feel that he was stalked by the park police and arrested to send a message to him "don't pick the flowers"! The NYC Parks Dept. got such bad PR from the arrest, they negotiated with Brill, dropped the charges, and hired him only 2 months after they arrested him to give guided nature tours of its parks, including Central Park, the former "crime scene".

So what was the big deal and why was Steve Brill arrested? Well, as it turned out, Steve had a reputation for foraging: after all he is a noted Naturalist, Educator, Author and Broadcaster. Mr. Brill describes his Environmental Curriculum as "a hands-on environmental program focusing on common wild plants, putting children in touch with their environment and motivating them to study science and practice conservation. It may include field walks in local natural areas, or in-house presentations and discussions. It's applicable to children of all ages and backgrounds, and the lessons are tailored to the group's educational level and prior environmental experience".

"There are many large parks throughout greater New York, and they present a wide range of ecosystems and species. Yet few of us are familiar with common wild plants, their identification, natural history, food and medicinal uses, or the folklore associated with them. Because we live in an age when environmental issues are crucial, we must do more than provide our children with textbook 
information if we expect them to understand and appreciate the natural world and to play a responsible role in conservation". "In the field as well as in the classroom we study wild plants from various perspectives. As the students learn plant identification, we emphasize key characteristics, so everyone can recognize the various species. We include botanical and ecological concepts, and use stories and humor to make the lessons come alive. Tales come from natural and human history, as well as from my personal experience. We include ethnobotany--traditions of plant use for food, medicine, and crafts--as well as some of the ways folk wisdom complements science", Mr. Brill says.

Now "Wildman" Brill's nature show can come to you! He recently released his first video series: "Foraging with the Wildman, A Comprehensive Class in Wild Food". The first 60 minute video, produced by Canopy Media, is "Wild Edible Basics" and it is fantastic, better than any book you can buy about the basics. It's almost touch and feel jumping at you from your television screen. But first---you are made aware of a few basic "beware ofs": poison ivy-poison oak-poison sumac, they won't kill you but I can tell you from first-hand experience you better know what poison ivy looks like! 

As I mention about the burdock below you'll see illustrations. The same for the dreaded poison ivy, you get to see it and know it before it gets to see and know you!!! So whether pulling out a burdock root or making a mistake and thinking it was burdock when it was yellow or curly dock, you see it live and first hand with this aforementioned capsule botanical description/diagram given by a narrator. You even get ideas on how to cook what you find---but please not the poison ivy! A look into Steve's freezer finds fiddlehead ferns, wineberry ice cream, mulberry cookies, acorns, wild black cherries and more. Comic relief comes in the form of fade-ins and fade-outs of such things as the "Brill Phone": Steve playing his cheeks as drums while slapping his fingers on them. I think he needs more practice to make to the Met, but still entertaining in a way.

You can see one cooking demonstration on the video, Carrots and the burdock root being stir-fried with roasted sesame oil and sesame seeds. This video isn't a cookbook. For that you need to to look at "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" also by Steve Brill. Follow the (books link here) to read Good Cooking's review of it.

Perhaps the next video in the series should also be available in DVD. Many people don't have a VCR anymore and it would be a shame for those who don't to miss out on the education that is provided by Brill. I was torn about mentioning the comic relief; whether good or bad, it wasn't quite my style. It certainly won't prevent me from wanting to see more videos when they come out, as long as there aren't any more Bill Clinton jokes. 

What impressed me the most? The huge chicken mushroom he found---a real beauty. I used to cook them every fall in my restaurant; my supplier, the "Mushroom Man" Ben Maleson, would save the best for me. They would be sautéed in butter with shallots, marsala wine and chopped chives, then served as a vegetable accompaniment on any particular evening, or tossed with thin linguini. I was also impressed by Brill's collection of dried edibles and frozen goodies---he's a good pack-rat like me.