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The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook by "Wildman" Steve Brill
The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook by “Wildman” Steve Brill

The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook by “Wildman” Steve Brill. Boston, MA: The Harvard Common Press, 2002. 550 pp. $29.95. ISBN# 1-55832-214-0.

If anyone were interested in opening a restaurant that could serve as the antithesis of the recently popular tongue-and-cheek trend of “Roadkill Cafe” faunal fare, a would-be wild food vegetarian restaurateur need look no further than this volume for an ample bounty of highly creative and delicious dishes based on “Wildman” Steve Brill’s extensive experience as a forest forager, wild foods chef, and teacher. If only I had found this book when I was first learning about wild edible plants, back in the early 1970s when I lived on a commune in northern New Mexico. Like many of the back-to-the-land movement’s participants in that era I “discovered” the great masters of wild food foraging in the Whole Earth Catalog, i.e., Eule Gibbons and Bradford Angier.

The author easily inherits the mantle of Bradford and Gibbons. He is well known to New Yorkers and folks in the mid-Atlantic and New England area as the guy who for about 23 years has been leading wild food foraging outings in New York’s Central Park. He has taught countless people how to identify and prepare wild edible plants and fungi and has been interviewed on many television and radio shows (from David Letterman to the Today show’s Al Roker, and much more).

Brill’s selection of off-road offerings is as extensive as the book’s subtitle: “A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods, with More than 500 Recipes.”

Rather than organizing the book by an arbitrary alphabetical listing of species, in a highly rational recognition that people will find (while foraging, and even in some food stores) various wild edible plants according to their chronological seasonality, Brill presents his floral fare in order of their appearance throughout the year. So you can harvest and eat your way through the Winter Wild Foods, then to the Early Spring Wild Foods, then the Mid- and Late Spring Wild Foods, and then to Summer Wild Foods, and so on.

Consider these: For Winter, my favorites would be (at least by reading them and imagining their tastes) Wild Cabbage Crunch and Sassafras Peanut Sauce. For Early Spring, how about Thai Pumpkin Soup (with Wild Carrot) or Wild Carrot Cake for dessert? Or Chinese Clay Pot with Solomon’s Seal.

There are also cross-seasonal possibilities (you’ve got to either freeze one plant for combination with another in a following season, or buy the previous season’s plant at your local gourmet market). One of the more interesting (of way too many to write about) is the ginkgo milkweed soup, wherein roasted and shelled ginkgo nuts are combined with common milkweed sprouts (from Asclepias syriaca, the edible milkweed, which the author distinguishes from the “poisonous—we might say “medicinal” —butterfly weed, aka pleurisy root, A. tuberose). Brill sagely cautions would-be foragers to collect common milkweed only under supervision from an experienced forager or botanist.

Each herb is introduced with its Latin binomial and a brief paragraph with some basic descriptions for identification. But this is not a forager’s guide; the presumption is that the reader has ample guidance on picking the proper species, like Brill’s previous book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places (William Morrow Publishers, 1994). Note: Never eat a wild plant you’ve harvested yourself unless you really know what you’re picking, or unless you have your grandmother, or someone experienced like Wildman Steve Brill, with you!

I once wrote a review of Steven Buehner’s Sacred Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation (1998, reviewed in HerbalGram 48) in which I playfully questioned whether I was an appropriate reviewer, since the book dealt with two of my favorite subject, herbs and beer! Similarly, I must ask the same here: as a veteran vegetarian who salivates at the mere thought of eating wild foods, am I too biased to adequately review this book, especially when I’m really pretty much of a klutz in the kitchen? Answer: Who cares?

There’s a lot going on in this book, as there is with Wildman himself. Assuming you can obtain some of these foods—and there’s enough variety in here for anyone, living in almost every part of the country—this cookbook is so unique and so compelling that it belongs in the kitchen of any true gourmand. For a real treat, check out his Web site, ( to learn more about wild foods, to read articles by (and about) the Wildman, and to hear some of his interviews in audio clips from his radio appearances (e.g., National Public Radio) or view his extensive archive of TV show guest shots. My hope is that Wildman will create a new company that markets frozen and/or freeze-dried wild veggie dinners. With this wide variety of novel and tasty recipes, he’s already off to a great start!

—Mark Blumenthal