On The Farm

Corn Smut: An Unexpected Delicacy

Corn smut – it sounds like a dirty word, but it’s actually a gray, bulbous fungus that grows on corn.

Although most farmers see it as a pest, I’d heard that some cultures consider it an edible delicacy. So, I recently dared to try some for myself.

As a farmer, I never wanted to see corn smut on my crop, although I’ve always enjoyed showing off the alien-looking growth to non-farmers. Whenever I want to chase my wife around the house like a young boy chasing a girl around the schoolyard with a lizard, all I have to do is wave around an ear of corn infected with corn smut.

Even though this fungus infects many corn fields, it’s rarely enough to cause major damage. The corn smut spores live in the soil and can infect corn plants experiencing stress caused by drought, fertility imbalances, and plant injury. The fungus typically infects the tip of the ear and damages the kernels, rendering it useless – or so I thought.

In all the years I’ve seen corn smut pop up in my fields, I never once thought of eating it. I’ve heard my employees mention that people eat it in Mexico like a mushroom, but I always thought they were just pulling my gringo chain.

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In all my years growing corn, I’d never been tempted to eat corn smut.

 

Fernando, a friend of mine who services all of my equipment tires, brought his family to my annual corn maze this year. While waiting to enter the maze, his wife Annelia began acting like she’d spotted her favorite celebrity. And she had indeed – its name was huitlacoche (weet-la-KOH-chay), a Mexican term for corn smut which originated with the Aztecs.

To my surprise, her excitement was over a gnarly growth of corn smut on an ear of corn inside the maze, not because it looked disgusting, but because she loves to cook with it! She told me all about its history in Mexico, describing the luxurious, warm flavors of her huitlacoche quesadillas. I was intrigued.

It’s amazing what a name can do for such a disgusting-looking fungus – suddenly, this huitlacoche sounded romantic and appealing. I couldn’t wait to try it, especially in front of my wife!

Fernando proceeded to sell his wife’s cooking, raving about how delicious corn smut was. On top of this, Annelia mentioned that the huitlacoche was high in antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins and more nutritious than the corn itself. I was sold.

I offered to collect some corn smut for Annelia but she refused, insisting on hand-selecting only the finest huitlacoche for her kitchen.

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Friend and home cook Annelia met me in my corn fields a few times to help me spot good corn smut to cook with.

 

So I met her at one of my corn fields and pointed out the corn smut, but she quickly took the lead and taught me exactly what to look for.

I’ve never heard anyone so passionate about corn smut, using words like “gorgeous” and “delicious” to describe a crazy-looking fungal growth on an ear of corn.

When infected, the corn forms tumor-like galls (I’ve been calling them “medallions”) where kernels would normally develop. As the corn and fungus mature, these galls continue to grow, turn spongey, and eventually burst, releasing millions of tiny, black spores.

I learned the hard way that you want to eat the young, crisp, developing corn smut galls, not the dry, black, exploded galls – unless you like the taste of soot.

As we were foraging through the field, Annelia joyfully ran up to me with an infected ear and said, “Look at how beautiful this is – try it!” I thought she was crazy but, since I was no longer the expert, I trusted her and broke off a “medallion.”

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The more fresh the corn smut the better. This smut tasted like fresh corn on the cob with an earthy aftertaste.

 

It took me a minute to work up the courage, but once I did, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. It tasted like raw corn on the cob with an earthy, truffle flavor. I actually ate another piece. It was by no means something I would snack on all day, but it was edible and unique and I was very proud of myself.

We proceeded to hand-select the best corn smut galls and place them into Annelia’s basket. Annelia posted pictures of her fresh huitlacoche treasures on Facebook, and immediately got the obvious comments: “What the heck is that?” “It looks so disgusting.” “That’s edible?” But she couldn’t wait to work her magic and prove them wrong.

To prepare the huitlacoche, she sautéed it with serrano peppers, garlic, onion, fresh epazote (a special herb from her friend’s garden), salt, pepper, fresh corn kernels. She then placed the sautéed huitlacoche into homemade tortillas with goat cheese and garnished the tops with crema Mexicana, cotija cheese, and salsa verde. My mouth is watering just thinking about it – this was the real deal!

Side of cooked corn smut anyone?

Side of cooked corn smut anyone?

 

I finally received a text from Fernando asking where I would be and they graciously met me in the corn fields with my “to go” plate of huitlacoche quesadillas and fresh homemade salsa. I didn’t admit that I was nervous, but it was still hard to get my preexisting corn smut thoughts out of my head and convince myself to eat this fungus.

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Annelia’s corn smut quesadillas with Monterrey Jack and goats cheese.

 

To my surprise, I was hooked after one bite. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before – the huitlacoche now had even more of a gourmet truffle flavor, and the sauté, cheese, salsa, and tortillas created the perfect combination.

I felt like an Aztec king devouring scrumptious huitlacoche quesadillas instead of a farmer in the middle of a corn field eating off a paper plate. None of my farmer friends would ever believe me, and I couldn’t wait to brag about it.

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I was completely surprised by how good corn smut tasted in a quesadilla.

 

This experience has completely changed my attitude towards corn smut. After much practice, huitlacoche now rolls off my tongue and I can’t wait until next corn season to say and eat it again.

As a corn farmer, I would still prefer to not see corn smut all over my fields. I wouldn’t be opposed to a couple of infected rows though. Maybe I’ll sell fresh corn smut in the future, but for now I’ll just trade some for Annelia’s fabulous cooking.

I can’t thank Annelia enough for the amazing food and lessons on huitlacoche and Mexican culture. It was truly an eye-opening experience and something that I will never forget.

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    11/21/2016 at 5:25 am

    Awesome article, its amazing what an open mind can do.

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    Lynn Pease
    11/24/2016 at 7:39 pm

    Good on ya, Chad! Well written & very informative article. Educational, too. Keep on farming. You are invaluable to this World.

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