Corn Smut Among "Kernels"

After knob celery and erotic passionflowers, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this week’s edition of Tendrils – my round-up of plant-related goodness – is Pure Smut. Smuts are fungal diseases that infect plants, named after the black spores which some of them shed, which resemble soot or smut.

Smuts can be problematic, but there’s one – corn smut – which is edible in its own right, and considered a delicacy. Ustilago maydis, known in Mexico as huitlacoche is eaten in quesadillas and soups. According to the Cornell Mushroom Blog, huitlacoche is an Aztec word that translates as “raven excrement” or “black shit”. Yum.

As you can see from the photo above, it’s not the most appetising of crops. According to Native Seeds/ SEARCH,  “Many people see huitlacoche and erroneously think it is the result of some biotechnology experiment gone wrong. It is not a type of frankenfood and has nothing to do with corporate gene manipulation or the overuse of pesticides. It is a natural phenomenon.”

It has been used as a food source for a long time, and it’s mentioned in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, a book about food production among the Hidatsa tribe in what is now North Dakota.

Although it is possible to encourage corn smut to grow, it’s not a cultivated crop – there’s no guarantee when or where it will arrive. But it’s nor just an American thing – corn smut can and does grow in the UK.

[]If you want to try growing your own smut, then you’ll need to grow some sweetcorn – a variety that produces mature cobs, rather than a ‘mini’ one. Suttons have Popcorn Fiesta, a coloured mix for popcorn cobs if you fancy something different, whilst Victoriana Nursery Gardens have a nice range of sweetcorn varieties available as both seeds and plants.]

Growing your own smut may not be the easiest thing in the world, but if you fail you do get a tasty consolation prize – fresh sweetcorn! We like cooking ours on the bbq.

Huitlacoche y Pollo Quesadillas (#0808)

If you do manage to grow some – or find some somewhere else – then what do you do with it? According to NPR, this ‘Devil’s Corn’ is no longer considered a scourge, but rather is being sought after by chefs. Most sources say it tastes (unsurprisingly) like a cross between mushrooms and sweetcorn, but in Porn on the Cob, mycologist Larry Evans describes the taste as “olives and oysters”.

Eat the Weeds suggests a novel take on an American classic with Smutty Mac and Cheese with a Pecan Crust and also has a recipe for Huitlacoche Soup. Beyond that, it’s a well-researched article with nutritional information, references and suggestions on how to inoculate your corn with smut spores. Of course, if you want to get all technical about it then there are maize mushrooms, which I guess is a more appetizing name, but I am fortunate that I don’t work in marketing!

If I haven’t sold you on corn smut, then don’t worry – Smithsonian Magazine includes it in their round-up of Delicious molds: four fungi fit for your plate, which gives you three other ways to get your fungal fix 😉