HBO’s smash hit drama series The Last of Us has taken audiences by storm, and you can experience the source of the show’s apocalyptic zombie plague right here in Toronto.
Well, sort of.
The hit series starring Pedro Pascal— based on the blockbuster video game franchise of the same name — centres around a world destroyed by a zombie plague.
Instead of the standard zombie origin tropes of lab-produced or animal-sourced viral outbreaks, the plague featured in The Last of Us is based on a fictionalized version of the very real and very terrifying fungus called cordyceps, known for its ability to turn insects into mind-controlled zombies.
In the real world, infected insects are gradually consumed from within by the parasitic fungus as it controls the critter’s brain functions, guiding it to an optimal location to spread its spores before its fruit horrifying sprouts from the now fatally-injured insect to repeat the cycle once more.
Unlike the scientifically-dodgy mutation depicted in the series, however, this mind-altering parasitic fungus only chooses insects as its host, posing no threat to warm-blooded mammals. And like most things that can’t kill us humans, we eat cordyceps, and have been doing so for thousands of years.
The fungus has been used for millennia in traditional Chinese medicine, purported to treat many ailments and diseases.
In the modern era, its popularity as a health food and supplement spans the globe, with Bon Appetit reporting in 2017 that “though no Western clinical trial has been published yet, research suggests that cordyceps have anti-viral, anti-tumor, anti-cancer, and, anti-aging effects,” adding that “in herbal shops across China, they’re marketed as an herbal Viagra.”
Before you recoil in horror, not all cordyceps on the market is sourced from zombified insect corpses. Though wild cordyceps is indeed harvested from ghost moth larvae for human consumption, the majority of supplement-grade cordyceps is artificially cultivated in a controlled, zombie-bug-free environment.
There are actually a few places where you can try cordyceps for yourself in Toronto, including Beatrice Society at 511 Richmond St. W.
blogTO video host Briana-Lynn Brieiro recently tested out some of the cafe’s items, specializing in functional mushrooms and adaptogens, including the legendary cordyceps.
It was served infused into a rich bone marrow butter Briana describes as “bomb,” and I can happily confirm that, days later, my colleague is in no way zombified.
The cafe also serves cordyceps in one of its vegan and gluten-free smoothies, a supplement it advertises as an energy booster.
Cordyceps is also a popular additive in coffee, like at the two Toronto locations of Strange Love Coffee, where you can grab a fungus-infused cup of java or as a take-home supplement to up the octane on your home brew.
If the cafe scene isn’t your cup of… whatever… you can find cordyceps at pretty much every health and supplement store, and I’m not going to list them all.
All the health food types are probably scoffing at my relatively recent discovery that people eat a mind-control zombie fungus, but even if you don’t need a little boost of energy in your diet, there’s certainly a novelty to being able to taste-test the source of a fictional world-ending plague.