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A LITTLE CORNY, A LITTLE SMUTTY
It was a rainy day in Boulder, Colorado. My boyfriend and I were scrambling, sweatshirt hoods up, to get inside before we were completely drenched. The rain in Colorado can come out of nowhere and disappear without a moment's notice. While the weather may not always be lovely in town, the food always is. Boulder has some of the best eating of any city I know. The wonderful establishment we ducked into that day was a taco place. Not the kind of taco place where you order by number and get a side of rice and beans, but a fancy haute cuisine affair with organic ingredients and handmade tortillas.
Since I don't eat meat, I'm sometimes faced with few menu options. I can't count how many times I've had a portobello sandwich or "grilled veggies" for lack of another meatless choice. As a result, I've developed an adventurous palette that is always hungry for new and different foods. I even get pickles on my pizza (it's good)! It's amazing how limited our American flavors are, compared to places like India, Morocco, and Mexico. The variety of edible spices, fruits, and vegetables around the world is astounding, if only we had better access to them. I just don't get how steak and potatoes can satisfy anyone on a nightly basis.
When I unfolded the menu in the Boulder taco restaurant, however, I was ecstatic to discover a selection as daring as my tastebuds. Foods I'd never even heard of before were described with words like, "caramelized," "drizzled," and "infused." Our good-natured server was patient enough to answer my many questions and soon I sat awaiting the results of my selections.
Flash forward a few years to a college in Athens, Georgia. I'm sitting in a small classroom surrounded by my academic peers, most of whom I have at least a decade on. The boyfriend who could afford to take me out for fancy tacos is long gone. Today, our professor has promised a lecture on smut and I'm excited. But, it wasn't the salacious subject you might expect. The class wasn't a literature class, nor one about sociology. It wasn't even an anatomy course. It was my first mycology class and it changed my life.
As our professor started her slideshow, she explained that smuts are types of fungi that infect plants, especially grain crops. The spores of the fungus Ustilago maydis settle on the bud of a corn plant (or any above-ground part) and infect it by getting into the corn cells. Eventually, the fungus causes the corn kernels to develop tumors. Instead of juicy little yellow kernels, ready to pop, they become mutants, bulging purplish growths that used to ruin entire crops of maize. Then, when the fungus is ready to release new spores, it turns the tumors black and dusty. In fact, the word "smut" is German, meaning "dirty" like soot.
I say "used to ruin" not because the corn disease has been eradicated, but because farmers in Mexico discovered that they could eat this smut. Not only was it edible, but it was quite delicious. And so, rather than disposing of their plants, they harvested the mutated kernels and sold them as a delicacy. This delicacy is called huitlacoche and it's been eaten south of the border for ages. Despite how it looks and sounds, the flavor is inoffensive, like a cross between sweet corn and a mushroom. Cooked up right, huitlacoche is mouthwatering.
It's hard to find fresh huitlacoche unless you happen to get lucky. The corn smut isn't something farmers tend to intentionally cultivate, it's just a miracle of nature. So, you have to know the right people at the right time. It's like some sort of illicit substance you find behind dark curtains that say "18 or older past this point." You need to know a guy who knows a guy. Or, you can get it in the can. The canned stuff is truly unappetizing straight out of the can. I blended some up with onions and cream to make a great dip once. Despite its odd purplish-black color, it was very good.
But once, years ago, I had a taco filled with fresh huitlacoche and it was the best taco I ever had.
If you want to learn more about huitlacoche, check out episode 10 of my podcast, Fungi Town, and watch the video of me making huitlacoche dip in the videos section of the website at http://www.fungitown.org.
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