Thursday, July 29, 2010

Smut is in the eye of the beholder


The identity of the disgusting growths that afflicted my first crop of sweet corn came not from a tome about plant diseases but from a cookbook, Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, which even suggests how to use the stuff in crepes, with fava beans in a soup and in tacos. It turns out that what American gardening books contemptuously call "corn smut" some Mexican chefs refer to as huitlacoche, a delicacy right up there with French truffles.

According to an article in Wikipedia, this disease turns the normal kernels in the corncob into blue-gray, tumor-like growths. In the U.S. infected plants are destroyed, but in Mexico they are prized because huitlacoche sells for more than healthy corn. The Aztecs in fact developed a method of purposely infecting healthy plants to induce the creation of huitlacoche.

The word huitlacoche comes Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language, although even in Nahuatl-ese the etymology is not very appetizing. The root huitla or cuitla, could mean either "excrement" or "rear end." Other sources translate huitlacoche as "raven's excrement."

And so on. None of the translations come out as "yummy!"

Still, some American gastronomes have tried to promote huitlacoche as Mexican truffle and persuade Americans to forget references to smut, excrement and such. In 1989 the James Beard Foundation even held a dinner featuring several huitlacoche dishes.

In his book Bayless says a huitlacoche dish is almost always on the menu at his upscale Mexican restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, where diners clamor for the black fungus. Then again big-city diners, apparently bored by more pedestrian foodstuffs, often ask for sweetbreads, beef tongue, brains and other things that wouldn't come near my mouth.

If I hadn't seen huitlacoche up close, in my own corn plants, I may have tried it. But its appearance, combined with the disappointment of the disastrous corn crop, are not likely to persuade me to add it to my diet.

2 comments:

  1. huitlacoche - love it! It has to be fresh and dry - otherwise it is a disappointment. NOTHING from a can - please.

    You hombres come here and I can take you to several restaurants that serve scrumptious huitlacoche.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've eaten huitlacoche several times and I haven't found that it has much flavor, either pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe I'm missing something.

    al

    ReplyDelete