NEW YORK — It's not what you'd normally think of doing in New York on a Saturday morning - hunting for chickens in Central Park. Actually, it was chicken mushrooms we were after, a form of wild fungus said to taste just like chicken.
My husband and I were on a foraging tour with "Wildman" Steve Brill, a naturalist who has been leading walks through New York's urban parks since the early 1980s.
Mr. Brill is not just an observer of nature's resources. He eats them. Only the renewable ones, of course, and the tastiest. Nuts and berries, greens and mushrooms, roots, shoots, and seeds are all part of his diet, and over the years he has extolled the virtues of such delicacies as Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, and burdock root.
Years ago, Brill - a tournament chess player - saw a group of Greek women gathering wild grape leaves in a park near his apartment in Queens. They couldn't speak English, but they managed to communicate the fact that the leaves would be delicious stuffed and steamed. Once he went home and tried them, he was hooked.
He read everything he could about wild edibles, and threw himself into the field work, exploring, collecting, tasting, and inventing recipes. He soon discovered he didn't have to go out to the country to find things to eat. They were literally right in his own backyard, or neighborhood park.
When he started leading walks through city parks, he ran into trouble. A former commissioner of parks once had him arrested - for eating dandelions in Central Park, according to Brill. Since then, he's obviously worked things out with city officials. He rarely gets hassled by park employees, and there's a flattering blurb from the former commissioner on the cover of one of Brill's books.
Nearly every Saturday, he can be found in one park or another, introducing a straggly line of followers to the joys of foraging. In his trademark safari hat, carrying a backpack stuffed with books, digging tools, a jeweler's loupe, and assorted bags and containers to fill with goodies, he strides ahead into the greenery, keeping up a steady flow of botanical trivia, personal anecdotes, and puns.
He even has his own soundtrack - jazzy tunes he produces by rhythmically clapping his cupped hands over his mouth. He's not Bobby McFerrin exactly, but the "Brillophone" adds a musical punchline to his jokes. Musically, Brill says, he takes after the mushroom: He's a decomposer.
Which brings us back to the chicken hunt. "I could run for president," he announced at the start of our tour. "I could promise everyone a chicken mushroom in every pot."
We never did find one.
Later on, like most presidential candidates, he backed down, conceding that chicken mushrooms were not very reliable, and had a way of coming up at different times and places every year.
But we didn't go away empty-handed. We tasted wood sorrel, ladies' thumb, and tiny datelike hackberries, collected garlic mustard and epazote, and learned how to make tea from the leaves of common spicebush and caffeine-free coffee from the pods of the Kentucky coffee tree.
Under a spreading oak, we found mushrooms - not chickens exactly, but hen-of-the-woods, which looked like large clumps of oyster mushrooms. I took them back to a friend's apartment to stir-fry with soy, oil, and garlic. Delicious.
• For more information, see www.wildmanstevebrill.com or phone (914) 835-2153.