A Forager’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic New York Dining
Just because the world is over doesn't mean you have to starve.
Hollywood is constantly slamming New York with some kind of apocalypse. Whether it’s aliens, sharknados, or nuclear fallout, something or another is always doing New Yorkers wrong. So, what are we going to do when the real apocalypse comes along? Well, we’re sure as hell not going to starve. The city’s foragers are damn sure of that.
Here’s their guide to staying living high on the hog after the slaughter.
The sun’s beating down, it’s a steady 100 degrees, and all of the water is drying up. Transportation isn’t working and there’s no food being trucked in. How do we stay alive?
“Wildman” Steve Brill, who has had forager cred since he was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park in 1986, told INVERSE to head for the seashore and go for the succulents, specifically the pads and fruit of the prickly pear, a type of cactus that grows in the sand. Purslane, a weed that grows all over the city, is another edible succulent that has some of the highest omega-3 levels of any known plant. Brill’s 11-year-old daughter Violet added that the fruit of the wrinkled rose, or Rosehip, has especially high levels of vitamin C.
According to Leda Meredith, another New York forager, when the heat dries up everything on the earth’s surface, it may be best to look underground: burdock, an edible root common in Japanese cuisine, grows in all of the city’s parks.
When the water in your apartment dries up too, there are tricks to stay hydrated. The sap that drips out when you cut open a grape vine (there are loads of vineyards out on Long Island) is completely drinkable. And there’s a secret artesian well in Alley Pond Park in Queens, which bubbles up very clean water from the Adirondacks. Meredith also suggests tapping birch, linden, or maple trees for their sap, which you can collect by simply jabbing the tree trunk with a sharpened twig.
In this Moses-inspired scenario, a huge plague of grasshoppers descends on the city, eating up everything green in sight. Again, no transportation, no groceries. Just bugs.
All of the foragers immediately said the same thing: Eat the grasshoppers. They’re not only packed with protein; they’re also going to retain all of the vitamins from the plants they’ve just ravaged.
Tama Matsuoka Wong, who leads tours and supplies restaurants with locally foraged foods for Meadows and More, says to go for strongly herbal or medicinal plants, which might not be eaten by the plagues. Grasshoppers won’t touch mushrooms, which are pretty abundant in the city: chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and morels can all be found in the city’s parks. Wong does advise newbies to use caution, as some mushrooms can be quite deadly. Brill’s daughter Violet swears to have found a 30-pound chicken mushroom — so named because it literally tastes like chicken — in Inwood Park in the Bronx.
Grasshoppers probably won’t eat fruit, either, so the wineberries, elderberries, juneberries, and mulberries growing in the city’s parks are all fair game. New York actually has a lot of berries because there aren’t any deer around to eat them.
In case of grasshopper bites, an herb known as plantain leaf (not related to the banana) has been used for centuries as a topical anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. It’s so common that “anyone with a driveway” has seen it, according to Meredith, and after it was brought over to this continent by Europeans, it earned the nickname “white man’s footstep” from Native Americans.
This contingency feels pretty real, considering the devastation Hurricane Sandy left in its wake. Storms and crashing waves cause the Hudson River to overflow, covering everything with at least six inches of water.
Wong says to head for swampy areas, where native plants are used to living in deep water. Cattails, which we’ve all seen along river banks, are profoundly nutritional. The tips are edible, as is the white section of the stalk, and its pollen can essentially be used like flour. It tastes like nuts and is packed with vitamins A, B, and C and phosphorus and potassium.
With the ground covered in water, Wong recommends going up. The young leaves of birch and beech trees are completely edible, as are the leaves of grape and honeysuckle vines and wisteria flowers. The fruit on trees is edible too — mulberries, cherries, gingko, and crabapple are all over the city — and, for, uh, preservation reasons, can even be fermented.
You’ve got to be careful of sewer runoff and polluted water during floods, but if you find a clean seashore, Brill recommends collecting seaweed — specifically rockweed, a flat plant covered in tiny bladders that lives on rocks in the sea. It’s an Atlantic plant, so it hasn’t been introduced to western palates through Asian recipes, but Brill claims it’s one of the most delicious (and iodine-filled) plants around.
The Hudson River, incidentally, is significantly cleaner than it was twenty years ago, so any oysters and shad you catch probably won’t kill you. Probably.
It doesn’t matter what’s causing it — maybe a never-ending solar eclipse, maybe volcanic ash, maybe clouds of dust — the sun is blotted out and the city is plunged into darkness. Sooner or later, the plants are gonna die.
All of the foragers agree: Grab as many greens as you can, then preserve them by drying them. In a situation where vegetation is scarce, you’re ultimately going to die from a lack of vitamins and nutrients. Garlic mustard, spicebush, and sassafras are all plants that grow in the shade and may survive the first few days of darkness. And for a hit of vitamin C, Wong says you can steep sumac and pine needles in hot water to make a tea.
Mushrooms are decomposers and don’t need light to survive, so harvest those next, says Brill. The giant puffball is pure white and hard to miss, and, once the temperature starts to drop, you’ll still be able to find oyster mushrooms, which can survive the winter.
Meredith reluctantly brought up the fact that earthworms, however gross, are edible as well.
Bonus: Roving Gangs
In addition to its wealth of nutritious, potentially life-saving edibles, New York also contains its fair share of poisonous plants. The amanita death cap mushroom is one of the most dangerous fungi around, and consuming it causes endless abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea until you die of death by liver failure within 48 hours. If you prefer a cleaner kill, you can take a cue from Socrates and turn the very common poison hemlock into a deadly tea, which disrupts the ability to breathe, ending in death by suffocation.