The Edible City
Writer Leah Singer heads into Central Park to forage for dinner
by Leah Singer
For urban dwellers, the shifting of the seasons usually means unearthing raincoats from the closet in April and adding layers of warmth in December. But Gary Lincoff doesn’t need to pay attention to the weather to know. For Lincoff, it’s June when wild strawberries dot the bushes and oyster mushrooms begin to populate the fallen oak logs. As a leading foraging expert, he connects with nature on a level most New Yorkers do not. But with basket in hand, eyes open and some time, a walk through Central Park can reveal mysteries in plain sight and turn any hardened urbanite into a naturalist.
On a recent sun-filled morning, while people around me looked harried, running their to-do lists through their heads like a mantra, I sat on the uptown C train headed for Central Park with mushrooms on my mind. I was on my way to meet Lincoff: an accomplished mycologist, author (notably of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mushrooms) and teacher at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Leaning against the stone wall at 96th and Central Park West, Lincoff was unmistakable in his wide brimmed hat and khaki hunters vest. I on the other hand, despite my Blundstone boots and backpack, still looked like a city girl. After a brief introduction we began our walk, looking not only for edible plants and mushrooms, but, for me, a better understanding of how to connect to nature in the Big City.
... nature’s cycle forces you to develop patience, not an inherent trait of the urbanite, along with an awareness of being in the moment, something we all forget to do.
Lincoff speaks of a “seasonal awareness” where you follow the seasons, knowing what grows each month. He laments the New Yorker who shops for strawberries all year long at the supermarket, without ever knowing when their local growing season occurs. He reminds me that nature’s cycle forces you to develop patience, not an inherent trait of the urbanite, along with an awareness of being in the moment, something we all forget to do.
We head deeper into the park, away from the entrance, where the trails are less frequented by the dog walkers and are farther away from the cars on Central Park West. Lincoff stops and runs his hand over a bushy array of Japanese knotweed plants but he doesn’t pick them, knowing their optimal picking time is well over. He is resigned to waiting until next year before he sees the young shoots again. Further down the path he predicts we’ll see the daylily buds and nods his head in approval as we pass them by, comforted by how nature doesn’t disappoint.
“I have a map in my head,” Lincoff tells me. He goes to Central Park everyday and travels through it like a man with a plan. When we don’t find any oyster mushrooms growing off the path in the Ravine, a quiet, woodsy section in the North East, he is not disappointed but rather, sure they will be there in a few weeks time. Although I would have enjoyed them with pasta for dinner that night, I was satisfied with the discovery of this bucolic section of the park, which I will revisit, and not only for its foraging potential. Where else in New York City can you see waterfalls and towering weeping willows lining the banks of a serene pool of water. The area embodies Olmsted and Vaux’s desire to design a park that blocks out the city and brings nature closer into view.
The most surprising find on our hunt were two mushrooms sitting just a few inches away from each other in an open field near some pine trees. One, the Russala, was a delicate pink-capped edible mushroom with pronounced gills that flaked easily. The other one called Inocybe was poisonous, dark brown with a conical cap and a very long thin stalk. This is when the field guide comes in handy. You need to learn what’s what before you want it on your toast for breakfast.
I remembered the children’s book, The Story of Babar, where Babar is anointed the new King after the King of the Elephants dies eating a poisonous mushroom. I had to ask the obvious question, “Is there a risk in eating wild mushrooms?” Of course, this is a concern for all foragers, novice or seasoned. Lincoff, who is an engaging storyteller, shares a story about an M.I.T. professor who refused to eat his foraged mushrooms but didn’t stop his family from gorging on them. Sometimes fear takes over the rational mind, but Lincoff assures me that with practice and good sense, anyone can succeed at picking edible mushrooms and plants.
A common mistake when foraging is to assume you know the plant because you’ve seen it before. Take the ubiquitous dandelion. This very recognizable weed actually has inedible look-alikes, so you need to know what makes it distinct, like its jagged leaves and leaf-free stalk. Easily collected in the park, the leaves are a beloved bitter green either cooked or used raw in salad.
Meandering up and down the trails, Lincoff points out the flowering chickweed, a mild salad green also used medicinally; peppergrass, a green plant whose leaves have a sharp tingling flavor; and white mulberry trees, whose fruit is sweet and fresh tasting. Many of the edibles here can be found at your local farmers market, but seeing them growing in Central Park gives you pause for thought.
With a slight smile on his face he recites the foragers dilemma, “You regret leaving them, and you regret taking them.”
Although we didn’t come across the prized morel mushroom, too late in the season, or the chanterelle, considered by many to be the tastiest of the mushrooms, Lincoff says it’s tempting to over forage when you discover treasures. With a slight smile on his face he recites the foragers dilemma, “You regret leaving them, and you regret taking them.” He has seen many a pleasurable walk quickly turn into a chore for someone who will have to jar, pit, clean, preserve and store all the bounty once its home. He sticks to picking only enough for the evening salad.
We leave the park through the Boys Gate at 100th St. and walk South. I accompany Lincoff across 96th St. when he notices a Linden tree in full yellow bloom. We take in the sweet scent. Linden trees grow all over the city but I have never noticed them before. Lincoff likes to dry the flowers and make tea, adding Basswood honey for extra sweetness.
Feeling inspired by the day and rarely finding myself on the Upper West Side, I decide to head down to Zabar’s, New York’s favorite food mecca. Curious about that honey, I head straight to the honey section content in knowing that the honey I am looking for came from the nectar of the Basswood tree, otherwise known as the Linden tree. From the trails of Central Park to the aisles of New York’s famed foodie hangouts, nature’s bounty awaits and sometimes all it costs is a swipe of your MetroCard.