Outside of featuring maybe the most beautiful on-screen dinner starring two gay men in a post-apocalyptic setting — okay, perhaps the only on-screen dinner starring two gay men in a post-apocalyptic setting — HBO’s The Last of Us might seem to offer little for the food-obsessed. But, in reality, there’s a steady amount of mushroom-related commentary to be explored, specifically of the parasitic cordyceps variety.
Cordyceps serve as an expensive delicacy in Chinese medicine, but they’re also a relatively familiar ingredient for many a fungus-loving consumer. Far West Fungi, a mushroom purveyor inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building, sells cordyceps and an array of other edible mushrooms. Kyle Garrone knows all too well how the show has spiked interest in both cordyceps and fungi generally. “After Last of Us, people have been curious,” Garrone says. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in general mushroom interest.”
Garrone has worked as a production manager for the company his whole life; his parents founded the Far West Fungi 40 years ago, and he’s 36. At both its stores in Santa Cruz and the Ferry Building, there are several ways to purchase cordyceps from Far West: in tincture form, in a dried mushroom mix alongside matsutake and porcini mushrooms, and for $20 all on its own as a powder. Garrone estimates, off the cuff, that the company has seen at least a 30 percent increase in total sales since mid-January when the show debuted. Adding cordyceps to drinks at both the store’s locations has been on the up, too.
Garrone also points out the costume design in the show doesn’t quite reflect what a cordycep really looks like, however. Reishi mushrooms, for example, are more flower-like in their presentation than the invented mind-controlling fungus that fuels the show. Cordyceps are skinny, and not very ornate or visually pleasing — in other words, they don’t look like the zombies in the show. “They look more like polypores,” Garrone says. “It’s more what you’d see in nature walking around. They’re talking about the cordycep because they’re parasitic, but the zombie creatures have more of the saprobic, log-growing fungus on them.”
Garrone studied plant biology at UC Davis and completed mushroom-centric internships at Berkeley, focusing on genetic sequencing. He says the show barely scratches the surface of mushroom-related knowledge. For example, he says cordyceps don’t technically affect insects’ brains, as stated in the show. They grow mycelium in the body of the insect, moving through the vessel and slowly consuming the host. An infected human wouldn’t even know why it’s moving around, though Garrone points out the fungus is hundreds of years from the point of evolution wherein it could take over a human. Garrone hopes the show — while not totally correct in its presentation of fungus — stirs a craze in mycelium knowledge, not unlike Jurassic Park and its resultant paleontologist boom. “There’s always been a mushroom fear out there,” Garrone says. “Last of Us brings interest, but there’s not much gained in a scientific way. I hope it inspires new mycologists out there.”
And while mushroom interest spreads like so many spores, there are other options in San Francisco to get your cordyceps fix. Chef Eric Upper at Afici and Alexander’s Steakhouse keeps the fungus on the menu as a vegetarian option; the spring cordyceps dish combines fava beans, grilled asparagus, and Parmesan espuma. It substitutes in where a noodle might, providing a nutty, umami-forward kick for gluten-free diners. “We basically use it like pasta,” Upper says. “It doesn’t look how other mushrooms look, so it’s perfect to treat that way.”
Plus, HK Lounge Bistro serves chicken soup with cordyceps, and Corey Lee’s San Ho Won’s spring bibimbap features ramps, fern, cordyceps, and pea leaves. At the newly reopened Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, cordyceps get folded into a single mushroom-stuffed dumpling served in a hot supreme broth.
Mind-controlling or not, there’s something alluring about the orange-yellow fungus that keeps people coming back. Upper hasn’t seen it on too many other menus, but it is indeed popular — with a noticeable surge in sales since the show premiered. “Customers see it and say, ‘Oh, awesome, let’s get that,” Upper says. “It has that name recognition now. It’ll probably be on both menus a little bit more.”