Does that sound faintly menacing? It's marvelous. On the first Saturday in May, a cool gray one, I signed up with the doyenne of urban gourmet foraging, Marie Viljoen, for a spring forage walk along seaside paths across Flatbush Avenue from Floyd Bennett Field. I love this wild fringe of Brooklyn, and I knew that strange things awaited us down on the beach. Our small group gathered, bags in hand, to pick nature's neglected salad greens (invasives only, nothing scarce or endangered) under Marie's sharp eye.
Marie is that gorgeous girl in school, the total original with the seemingly effortless style, but so incredibly nice you can't hate her for it. Tall, ginger, erudite about botany and with a sharp sense of humor, she could be a lifestyle guru (just see her blog 66 Square Feet (Plus)) if she were just less intelligent, quirky, and nuanced. She introduced us to the mysteries of pokeweed, whose young shoots are relished by Southerners (and, in this case, a South African), but whose mature plant parts and berries are toxic.
Young milkweed--or maybe it's dogbane, a poisonous look-alike. They both have milky sap, but only milkweed has hollow stems. Butterflies eat it, too, so Marie recommends only foraging it in areas where it is plentiful.
As we headed toward the water, I nibbled the bases of phragmites (didn't care for them) and some resinous immature bayberries (delicious). Marie uses bayberry leaves like bay leaves, infusing gin or vodka with them, and the buds like capers. We emerged onto Dead Horse Bay, with the Marine Parkway Bridge rising in the distance. At our feet: sea rocket, a salt-loving little green with the kick of wasabi.
Also at our feet: the surreal washed-up detritus that has made Dead Horse Bay a famous mecca for beachcombers and bottle collectors. The currents turn up an unceasing harvest of glass, ceramic, shoe soles, and other urban imperishables, along with the occasional horse bones--remnants of its past (as a home for glue factories and slaughterhouses) reflected in its memorable name. I've been here before, and it's always fun to watch the incredulity of a first-timer at this dystopian harvest.
Some of the bottles are clearly recognizable, and as you toss them back you wonder, Whose nighttable did that Noxema sit on, and when? What family, after a pancake breakfast in some other decade, consigned that maple syrup bottle to a watery limbo? And, is "Miracle Power" strong enough to overcome the evil of an ancient crushed dollhead?
Next, we climbed up a low bluff, where Marie laid out a superb picnic: Vietnamese spring rolls, translucent wraps around bouquets of spring nibbles; pokeweed-sprout finger sandwiches; and a refreshing homemade cordial brewed from various natural elixirs gathered on her walks. And a buttery loaf cake scented with almond-y mahleb, or cherry pits. Coots and geese provided background music, along with the surf. Nearby, nestled in a dune, I found a little art installation that some previous visitor had left behind.
And we headed back up to Flatbush Avenue and ordinary life, having feasted on the foraging fringe of Brooklyn.
For a deep dive into Marie's beautiful matrix of New York, food, plants, life and beauty, you can buy her book 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life, One Woman, One Terrace, 92 Recipes. And for her take on this walk, including her gorgeous photos, go here.