It is not an exaggeration to call the cattail (Typha spp.) the supermarket of the marsh. Food can be procured from cattails during any season – even the dead of winter – and nearly every part of the plant is edible.
Perhaps the most distinctive food that comes from the cattail is its rhizome, a root-like, underground stem that is one of the richest wild sources of edible carbohydrates in the Northeast. Cattail rhizomes can be harvested at any time of year, but the best time is after the plants have died-back in late autumn, when the cattails have stored starch for the next growing season. It takes a large number of rhizomes to produce a sufficient quantity of food, so it is best to gather from a sizable population. Since cattails readily accumulate metals and other pollutants, choose your location carefully.
Rhizomes can be gathered from anywhere within the patch, but digging them out of the thick tangle at the center requires a lot more work. The best way to gather them is to wade out to where the cattails give way to open water and follow a stem several inches down into the mud with your hand, until you feel a finger-thick, spongy, ropelike stem leading horizontally away from the plant. Give it a little tug. If it is connected to another cattail nearby, you can often see that plant wiggle as you pull. Cut both ends with a knife and pull the rhizome out of the mud.
The cattail rhizome looks like a strange, reddish-brown, alien tentacle with rings of threadlike roots every few inches along its length. The outer layer is spongy and inedible. Remove this outer layer with your thumbnails, pushing off the spongy rind without pulling up any of the core’s fibers. It takes a bit of practice to get this right. The inner core should be firm, fibrous, and white. Any cores that aren’t should be thrown out.
From here, you could simply chew the starch from between the long fibers. This is convenient but messy. Some people roast the unpeeled rhizomes and flake off the charred rinds before chewing. This does improve the flavor, but is even messier.
Another possibility is to slice the peeled cores into coins, leave them to dry, and grind them in a food processor or grain mill. This yields a starch and fiber mixture that can be sifted with a jelly bag suspended in a sealed jar. The powdery starch keeps fairly well and can be used as a gluten-free flour replacement.
My favorite method is to vigorously work the peeled cores in a basin of water. The starch settles to the bottom and most of the water can be decanted, leaving a batter-like mixture. This can be used as the basis of a latke-like pancake, added to breads or baked goods, or used as a thickener in stews and casseroles. This method takes practice; additional information can be found in Samuel Thayer’s excellent book, The Forager’s Harvest.
Regardless of how you process them, there’s no way to avoid the fact that harvesting cattails is messy work. Still, there are few wild foods as hearty as the cattail rhizome. You will be well-rewarded for getting a little messy.