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.
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.