Steve Brill’s first stop was the greenery behind the bike racks. Brill, who is known as Wildman Steve, picked up a weed with heart-shaped seed pods and a small, four-petalled white flower. About thirty of us were gathered for a three-hour foraging tour through Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. The plant was shepherd’s purse, a name that references the seed pods’ resemblance to the containers shepherds used to make from the bladders of sheep. “It’s in the mustard family,” Brill said. “Most all of the flowers in the mustard family are four petals in the shape of a cross.” He encouraged everyone to take a bite, and to tell him what vegetable it tasted like. Someone asked whether we should worry about pesticides. “Don’t worry, they don’t have the money for pesticides,” Brill responded. “And, anyhow, they’re pretty good at Prospect Park. In Central Park—don’t eat anything there.” He was exaggerating; he’s been doing foraging tours off and on in Central Park for some forty years, and was once even arrested there, for eating plants, after which he was brought on David Letterman’s show to make a foraged salad.
The weed tasted like carrot? Like okra? Like broccoli, almost precisely. “Shepherd’s purse is one of the more mild species in the mustard family,” Brill said, and then plucked what looked to me like a dandelion but wasn’t. “Here’s something spicier,” he said. It was another member of the mustard family, called poor man’s pepper. He drew our attention to the serrated leaves. Like shepherd’s purse, poor man’s pepper is an invasive weed, one that came from Europe. “I picked a lot of this in the Rockaways this morning,” he said. He planned to make “poor man’s potatoes”—potatoes (bland) with lots of poor man’s pepper (spicy). The common name dates back to when spices were a luxury import. Besides being tasty, spicy foods are also often a preservative and an antibacterial.