May 22, 2008

Wiki Thursday: Corn Smut

While using StumbleUpon, I ran into an old favorite. It was "Steve, Don't Eat It! Vol. 7" on the excellent website "The Sneeze"

If you're unfamiliar with "Steve, Don't Eat It!" the short description is that this guy eats stuff that look or sound gross, and that equals some great entertainment. In installment 7 he digs into Huitlacoche. It's a Mexican ingredient named for its resemblance to feces (literally, "raven's excrement"). Some people view it as an ingredient, others as a crop disease called "Corn Smut."

Help, Wikipedia! Explain! From the entry on Corn Smut:

Corn smut is a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis . U. maydis causes smut disease on maize ( Zea mays ) and teosinte (Euchlena mexicana). Although it can infect any part of the plant it usually enters the ovaries and replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms. These tumors, or "galls", are made up of much-enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads, and blue-black spores. The spores give the cob a burned, scorched appearance. In fact, the name Ustilago comes from the Latin word ustilare (to burn).

It's pretty gross to look at (the wiki page shows an image of the galls, which are a little bit gross, but the spores are still contained safely inside. In the canned version of the "food ingredient" the spores have leaked out in all their blackened spore-y glory. It looks pretty nasty.

"Fungus" is not a food-friendly term. But we have made peace with, and even celebrated, the lowly mushroom in American cuisine. Why is Huitlacoche any worse?

Well, it looks worse. And the word "infection" is also troubling. Even when we think of mushrooms as a fungus, we don't think of them as infecting something else we like to eat.

What interest me in this substance is that there is a conflict between whether it is a disease or a food. It becomes a matter for the USDA to decide when people want to actually cultivate a pathogen as a food, because pathogens such as this can harm a nation's food supply.

Why do people even bother trying to cultivate this stuff? People love to eat. It's a very personal choice what they choose to eat. And people become bored and crave variety. There are folks out there who were (and perhaps are) banking on the idea that the Mexican Truffle will one day catch on and we'll all be paying a premium for Raven's Poop.

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Posted by James at May 22, 2008 12:41 PM
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I remember the corn smut. The only grosser on, to me, was Natto. Gotta love Steve Don't Eat It!

Posted by: briwei at May 22, 2008 12:53 PM

Apparently this stuff is pretty good. It also isn't much different from mushrooms or truffles when you think about it. Would you stick a truffle fresh from the earth in your mouth if you didn't know what it was?

As to why people started eating it. i would suspect it infected some poor farmer's corn and he couldn't afford not to eat it. When he did he found out it was damn tasty. Same way people (well some people that don't include me) overcame their revulsion with eating giant red seagoing cockroaches!

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at May 22, 2008 1:12 PM

I can't bring myself to try nopalitos, and they're not even gross.

I suppose they continue to cultivate huitlacoche because it's a traditional Aztec food. It's probably even yummy if you grew up with it.

I didn't grow up with it, though, so... no thank you.

Interesting that websites talk about "fresh" huitlacoche. I realize that they mean "as opposed to canned," but freshness is an interesting term with respect to infected food. Is it possible for corn smut to go bad?

Posted by: Julie at May 22, 2008 1:17 PM

Well mushrooms and truffles can (go bad). It's probably unfair to say it's infected. mushrooms "infect" wood, they don't grow in soil. If malted barley or crushed grapes were not "infected" with yeast we wouldn't have beer or wine (or any other alcoholic drink). So let's go easy on the whole infected thing.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at May 22, 2008 1:27 PM

by the way I'm not saying I'd line up to eat this stuff but I ain't gonna try tripe either and I eat pretty much the rest of that animal. I'll trust people when they tell me it's good.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at May 22, 2008 1:28 PM

I don't know what I like better, the fact that it's called "smut" or that it's an infection.

Posted by: Patti M. at May 22, 2008 1:36 PM

Oh, come on BOB -- "infected" is half the fun of this stuff!

As for mushrooms, it took me a while to get used to them, and my kids still won't eat them.

People get bored and hungry and eat all sorts of stuff. I feel lucky that I am not bored or hungry enough.

Posted by: James at May 22, 2008 1:54 PM

And here I thought corn smut was a kind of fetish film you bought in the back of the video store.

Posted by: Bull at May 23, 2008 8:37 AM

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