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Smut is Good for You

Sam MooreAnyone who has grown corn is probably familiar with the revolting bluish gray masses of smut that sometimes form on the corn kernels, stunting the growth of the ear and rendering it unfit to be used. I know we always tossed away any infected ears, especially on sweet corn, and I always felt a shudder of revulsion when I found a bad ear while picking or shucking sweet corn.

Corn smut is a fungus (Ustilago maydis) that is spread by spores, which can infect any part of the plant, although it usually replaces the normal corn kernels with large, misshapen blue or green-gray gobs of nasty-looking stuff. When early in their growth these gobs are soft and fleshy but they later dry out and are full of black spores. The mass eventually breaks open and the dust-like spores are spread by the wind where they infect other healthy plants.

Many years ago, my late cousin, Peg Townsend, sent me an article from the August 2001 issue of Horticulture Magazine titled, “Corn Smut Goes Upscale,” written by Robert Sommer. Peg included a note that read “Wonders will never cease!” because as a long time sweetcorn grower, she just couldn’t believe that anyone actually found any good in the stuff. Sommer explains that corn smut is considered a delicacy in Central and South America, where it is known as huitlacoche or cuitlacoche and is usually sold fresh in grocery stores, but can be purchased canned as well.

Corn smut has been around since the ancient Aztecs grew maize, and they’re the ones who named it huitlacoche (wheat-la-COH-chay), which, according to one account, translated into something like “crow droppings” in the Aztec tongue although not in modern Spanish.

Robert Sommer says that fancy restaurants in California and New York City are now offering cuitlacoche as a gourmet dish, described as “corn mushroom,” (also “Mexican truffle”). He says he ordered “corn mushroom crepes” in one of these restaurants and enthuses: “They were delicious, and the earthy, smoky flavor gave me an appetite for more.” Sommer says he now gets the smut from his own garden, or from corn growers near his home, who, he hinted, look upon him as being a little whacky.

Sommer’s recipe for Smut-Filled Tortillas follows:
• 1 pound corn smut (harvest as soon as the galls begin to turn blue)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 3 mild chili peppers
• 1/2 small onion, chopped
• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 2 tablespoons cilantro (coriander) or epazote (a Mexican herb), chopped
• Salt and pepper to taste

Char, peel and seed the peppers before cutting them into narrow strips. Saute the garlic and onion in oil. Add chilies and the corn smut. Cook covered over medium heat for 20 minutes. During the last 5 minutes, add the cilantro or epazote. Salt and pepper to taste. Fill corn tortillas with the mixture and warm them in the oven.

According to research on the ’net, the action of the parasitic fungus actually makes the infected corn healthier to eat than normal corn (who’d ‘a thunk it?). The physiological process introduces new beneficial nutrients that would normally not be present in the corn kernel, such as a large amount of lysine, an essential amino acid that is lacking in corn. When the lysine from corn smut is combined with corn’s natural amino acids they form as high a quality protein as is present in meat.  Corn smut contains many other vitamins, acids and proteins not found in normal corn.

I confess I’ve never eaten the stuff but I think if I ever see corn mushrooms or Mexican truffles on a menu I’ll try them. After all, I really like mushrooms and most people who have tried huitlacoche say it’s as good or better. There are a lot more recipes for huitlacoche at http://www.sweetcorn.illinois.edu/Common-smut/Recipes.htm

If anyone tries any of these recipes, let me know how they turned out. Maybe you could make a nice soufflé of huitcloche to liven up your Thanksgiving dinner.

– Sam Moore

Corn smut

A corn ear with a lot of smut growth. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.