Photo by Sara Lipka
In tall rows of brambles or tomatoes, farm interns can't always see one another, but our yelps and shrieks carry. On a few occasions a giant tiger bee toting a paralyzed cicada had buzzed a person's head. Other times somebody had found a snake, a dead baby skunk, a parasitized caterpillar exploding with larvae, or a two-foot-long zucchini. My unflappable fellow intern Casey teases me for screaming, but one day last month he called out from the cornfield.
As usual, we all ran over to investigate. Casey clutched a chubby ear of Silver Queen, normal enough at the bottom, but toward the top, bursting out of its husk with what looked like gray, squishy elephantiasis. What on earth? Casey and our crew leader, Jen, identified the discovery, which looked to me like a cluster of foam packing peanuts, sculpted from corn by Gaudí. Smut, Jen and Casey said, nodding. We found five or six smutty ears and laid them across the dashboard of our pickup as we drove back to the farm center.
Corn smut tastes like rich earth and raw corn, like a wild mushroom that's been cut with a corny knife.
We immediately Googled "corn smut" and confirmed its status as a Mexican delicacy, typically sautéed with onions and peppers or blended into a soup or sauce. We fantasized about selling our yield for top dollar to high-end restaurants, maybe putting a hot tub behind the bunk house on our northwestern Virginia farm. Our Mexican neighbors checked our glee. One shrugged: nothing special. Another thought it might be poisonous. But a local botanist swore it wouldn't kill us.
Corn smut, known in Mexico as huitlacoche (weet-la-KO-chay) or the rhyming cuitlacoche, is a feasting fungus. A parasite, Ustilago maydis, attacks corn kernels and replaces them with smooth, contoured fungal tumors, or galls. Farmers in the United States generally consider smut a blight, a disease to be eradicated, but native tribes in the Southwest and in Mexico have long prized the grotesque marvel. In 1989 the James Beard Foundation held a dinner in its honor, christening it "Mexican truffle" to promote its prestige. It sort of worked. In the '90s the USDA, responding to demand, cleared Florida and Pennsylvania to infect crops with the parasitic fungus. More recently The Washington Post and NPR reported its novelty. Online, some foodies have called it gunky, muddy, sooty, or tarry, while others drool over its mushroom-y musk.
Time for a taste test. I stashed our cutest smutty ear in a messenger bag and drove it to D.C. My curious friends peered over my shoulder as I plucked infected kernels off the cob and thinly sliced them. I tended toward immature galls, avoiding the older ones, which teemed with a wet, black powder. Spores! Eventually they were too hard to avoid, so I gave up. I sautéed one ear's smut, soot and all, in olive oil, with a small red onion and two red Italian sweet peppers. At the table, everybody ate eagerly, even the queasy pregnant lady.
Corn smut tastes like rich earth and raw corn, like a wild mushroom that's been cut with a corny knife. Back on the farm, Casey kept experimenting with it, and I liked it better sautéed in butter. Traditional Mexican recipes combine sautéed huitlacoche with onions and chiles, or with roasted poblanos in a cream sauce. It also turns up in quesadillas, and often with the Mexican herb epazote.
Zora Margolis, an avid home cook and student of Mexican cuisine, still remembers a Los Angeles restaurant's early-'80s huitlacoche festival--and its enchiladas drizzled with musky cream. Now, at farmers' markets in Washington, D.C., Margolis has a reputation. Several years ago she started asking New Morning Farm for huitlacoche, which she compares to morels or black trumpet mushrooms, not as pungent as porcinis. She loves it. When sellers would see her each week, they'd say, "Here comes the smut lady."
If East Coast farms bring corn smut to market at all, they probably won't have it anymore this time of year, but where corn is still in season, smut may be for sale. Some Mexican restaurants serve the special item--Oyamel in Washington makes quesadilla huitlacoche and arroz de huitlacoche con queso fresco--and a farm in Florida ships orders. The smut lady prefers hers fresh, but Goya cans, she says, available at some Latin American markets, aren't so bad. Apparently the smut isn't pre-cooked, just heated in the canning process. Not exactly a truffle, but still a treat.
To try cooking with corn smut, click here for a recipe.