Foraging in Central Park

Long time readers (hello to all three of you!) may remember that a few years ago, I went on a foraging tour of Prospect Park led by “Wildman” Steve Brill. I always intended to go on another tour, but somehow I managed not to do it. A few weeks ago I didn’t have any plans for a Saturday, and I saw that “Wildman” was giving a tour of Central Park, so I signed up for it. I had a pretty good time, though I didn’t collect quite as much as I did last time, but more importantly I feel like I learned a lot. Education is the whole point of the tours, and this one was full of great info.

I am interested in foraging for the same reason that I am interested in folk tales — I like the idea that this knowledge was deemed important enough to pass down for generations, and unfortunately a lot of this knowledge is being lost. Well, that’s one of the reasons that I’m interested in foraging; the other reason is that I am insatiably curious about the world around us, particularly the edible parts of it. It’s particularly interesting to me to find so many edible plants in the middle of Manhattan. On this tour we learned about the history of sword fighting, Russian folklore, and the foraging habits of cavemen. I was able to collect samples of quite a few things, including: lamb’s quarter (a kind of wild spinach), lady’s thumb (tastes kind of like lettuce), epazote (a popular Central & South American herb), poor man’s pepper, wild apples (with a pink blush on the inside), burdock root, and wood sorrel (easily mistaken for clover, with a distinct lemon flavor). I would recognize lady’s thumb and wood sorrel again in an instant, because “Wildman” goes over the small details that differentiate the plants from their non-edible counterparts.

There were also some plants that we didn’t find enough to collect, but we did taste: carnelian cherries (native to Turkey), black cherries (tasted like a cross between cherry and grapefruit), hackberries (my favorite find of the day, a thin shell around a large pit, reminiscent of the candy shell of an M&M), asiatic dayflower (tasted somewhat like green beans), common plantain (not related to the plantain), black nightshade (really delicious, despite sounding so poisonous), and an edible species of viburnum.

So what did I make with the food that I did collect? I had mostly small greens, and I considered making a salad, but that seemed kind of boring. Back during our 2 Year Anniversary Party for this blog, I made a salad mixed with fried mushrooms. I considered making the same thing, but then I remembered that I had an eggplant that I had to use. I fried it up with some tomatoes, and then tossed the cooked eggplant with the raw (but thoroughly washed) greens. It was a great mixture of flavors, textures, and temperatures, and it’s a technique that I’m going to continue to use in the future.

Two words of warning about the “Wildman” and his tours. First: you will have to put up with his corny jokes. My favorite of the day came when we found some wild mountain strawberries, which look like tiny, perfect, red strawberries. “Wildman” warned us, “if you eat one, you will die… of disappointment!” It’s because they have no flavor at all, a fact confirmed by someone on the tour. Second: You will have to put up with Violet, the young daughter of “Wildman”. As any young child would under the circumstances, she interrupted the tour so often that even “Wildman” was getting annoyed. It’s worth putting up with, I think, because she knows a lot about the edible plants that her father has taught her; she’s one of the few people who will be passing this knowledge on to future generations.

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