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Corn smut is the delicious fungus among us

I'm toying with the idea of planting corn in my backyard, then infecting it with the fungus Ustilago maydis. If all goes well, the kernels will be coated with a greenish-white covering, then turn silver-gray before rupturing to reveal huitlacoche, a black corn fungus that is a delicacy in Mexican cooking. Huitlacoche (pronounced "wheet-lah-KOH-chay") has the texture of mushrooms and a taste that Diana Kennedy, author of Cuisines of Mexico, says must have made it the ambrosia of the Aztec gods.

The word is derived from the Nahuatl language and means "excrescence," which is an apt description to most U.S. corn farmers and agricultural extension agents, who also refer to the fungus as "corn smut."

But to many aficionados of authentic Mexican cuisine, huitlacoche is a rare treat. Cut the fungus from the corn cob, chop it up and cook it with some onion, garlic, chile and salt. Put it in a quesadilla and you've got a meal fit for the Emperor Maximilian, who is said to have enjoyed huitlacoche crepes during his ill-fated reign of Mexico in the 1800s. It can also be made into a delicious soup, or a sautéed sauce used to complement meat dishes or eggs.

Huitlacoche is sold in open-air markets in much of central Mexico, but its availability depends on just the right combination of weather and timing. Early season drought seems to predispose plants to infection, but Mexican farmers who find their corn crops afflicted with Ustilago maydis can always sell their huitlacoche, often at a higher price. I lived in Guadalajara for three years and it became my favorite food, served in a tortilla with melted white cheese and a little seasoning.

However, it is not easy to obtain huitlacoche here in Arizona, even though our state borders Mexico. Fresh huitlacoche has a short shelf life of one or two days. Some specialty food stores sell canned huitlacoche imported from Mexico, but even the canned variety is subject to wide fluctuations in availability. On the Internet I found one gourmet specialty foods company offering huitlacoche, only to learn via e-mail that this supply had dried up. I inquired at several Mexican grocery stores here in Phoenix, but turned up nada.

"Huitlacoche? I've been trying to get that," the manager of one store told me. Southwest Supermarkets, which offers an extensive selection of imported Mexican food items, does not carry huitlacoche.

I contacted a half-dozen Mexican restaurants -- including some offering authentic regional cuisines -- but again, nada. Then someone tipped me off that Los Sombreros Restaurant in Tempe sometimes offers huitlacoche.

Chef Jeff Smedstad told me he gets some of his huitlacoche from farmer Roy Burns, who has been cultivating corn smut since 1992 in Florida's citrus belt. He also makes buying trips to Mexico City's sprawling La Merced market, and confided that he once obtained a stash of huitlacoche from a contact at the Desert Botanical Garden.

Smedstad was planning to make some quesadillas with huitlacoche in a few days, but cautioned that this supply would quickly run out.

La Hacienda at the Scottsdale Princess Resort has huitlacoche on its menu as well, and, trying not to sound desperate, I inquired where this restaurant procured its supply.

La Hacienda referred me to Earthy Delights (www.earthy.com), a specialty foods company in DeWitt, Michigan, which Fed Exes the restaurant regular shipments of frozen huitlacoche. Earthy Delights president Ed Baker told me that La Hacienda was his only huitlacoche customer in Arizona. And where does Earthy Delights get its supply?

Roy Burns, the lone grower in Florida, who also supplies gourmet restaurants in Chicago and New York.

So the next time I cross the border, I'm going to find a Mexican grocery selling canned huitlacoche and buy up the entire stock, assuming there are no regulations limiting the importation of corn smut into the United States.

Either that, or try to grow my own in my backyard.

Mary Helen Spooner is a former foreign correspondent who is the only native-born American in her family.

 
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