In polite company they call it the Mexican truffle, but in the American corn belt it’s nothing but smut. In fact, the USDA has been trying to eradicate it for a century. If you have ever seen a smut infested ear of corn, you’d know why this bizarre sooty looking fungus freaks people out. No doubt backyard gardeners in the Midwest will see it often this flood year because this fungus thrives in warm, wet weather.
But in other cultures the fungus is cherished like a rare and delicious mushroom truffle. First appreciated by the Aztecs, they incorporated it into many of their ancient dishes where it goes by the name huitlacoche (wee-tlah-KOH-cheh). Translation from the Nahuatl language means “crow excrement”, describing its unsavory appearance. Yet this food is still a big part of Mexican cuisine today. In fact, it is canned and sold in indigenous marketplaces, and is also preserved by freezing. It’s integrated into tamales and soups. When fresh, the puffed up kernels are boiled for ten minutes then sautéed until crispy in butter.
The traditional time to harvest Mexican truffles is when the infected kernels are in their early state. This puts them in the same condition as mushrooms before their gills open. Some say they should be soft as a freshly ripening pear. At peak the flavor is described as sweet corn and smoke. Waiting too long results in a truly smutty flavor because the inside turns from delicious flesh to a mass of black spores. When the kernel splits open the spores are released, traveling on the wind to land in soil where they remain viable for three years.
In the wet central highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, small farmers search their crops during the rainy season for signs of the developing fungus. These infected ears are relished in home cooking and adds to their sparse early season diet. This probably protects their crops from larger smut infestations as well. They sell the excess huitlacoche ears at fifty times what a standard ear of corn costs. In the markets of Mexico City over 100 tons of Mexican truffle are sold each season.
Interest in pre-Hispanic ingredients has risen among the organic gourmet world. One famous dinner held in 1989 by the James Beard Foundation featured huitlacoche in many dishes in an effort to bring this new yet old food to light. As a result, the USDA began allowing selected farms to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche fungus. The irony here is that scientists at the USDA working to eradicate smut in the past discovered effective ways to infect corn with the fungus in order to test their various cures. The Aztecs simply scraped the plants on the ground or with dried fungus to infect the kernels.
Despite the fact that it’s a delicacy in Mexico, this black fungus has a hard time catching on in the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps it’s the black juice exuded from the kernels as they are cooked, or maybe it’s just the idea of eating diseased corn that’s the turn off. The consensus is that canned huitlacoche is not nearly as good as the fresh stuff, and it must be imported from Latin America. For Midwestern gardeners, there is little doubt that what sweet corn is not destroyed by flooding may invite huitlacoche to show its sooty face in North America. Heirloom corn is even more prone. In these years of curious weather patterns, it’s always a comfort to discover nutritious food in the wake of disaster. And for home gardeners with the spirit of adventure, corn turned mushroom, will bring a strange but savory taste to late summer fare.