Smut is Good for You


| 11/19/2015 4:12:00 PM


Tags: Looking Back, Sam Moore,

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