Etymology and eating have always had an uneasy relationship. Certain food words are appetizing when traced back to their origins; basil comes from the Greek basilikón, for “royal”, and whisky derives from aquavit, or “water of life.” Then there’s the aubergine (eggplant to us, etymology obvious), which started life in Sanskrit as the “anti-fart vegetable”, and the avocado or ahuacatl, which comes from the Nahuatl word for “testicle.” Not quite as palatable, perhaps.
The Aztecs, who spoke Nahuatl, seemed to take their naming rather literally (as they did the idea of human sacrifice. No fasting and hairshirts for them). After leaving us with the words for chocolate and tomato—xocalatl and tomatl, or roughly “bitter water” and “swelling fruit”—they also gave us cuitlacochi, or huitlacoche, translated variously as “raven droppings” or “sleeping excrement.” As with the avocado, the Aztecs called it like they saw it. Huitlacoche is one ugly food.
Perhaps as a result, huitlacoche has never made much of an impression on menus in the United States. To spark interest among foodies, some chefs refer to huitlacoche as “corn mushroom”, “corn fungus” or as “Mexican truffle” (you can thank the James Beard Foundation for that one). Huitlacoche is not a truffle, although it is partially fungal. What huitlacoche consists of, properly, is an infection of the fungus Ustilago maydis in the ovaries of the corn plant, a distention of the kernels into tumorous galls, and the spreading of fungal threads and black spores, making the end result look like, well, excrement. Ustilago means, appropriately, “to burn.”
The resulting irregular blob, huitlacoche, was prized by the Aztecs and is still commonly found as an ingredient in Mexican and Central American cuisine. In the US, meanwhile, huitlacoche research is the recipient of millions in funding—to eradicate it from our crops. To most of our farmers, the USDA, and the casual reader of crop science journals, huitlacoche is famous under the name “corn smut”, a destructive disease to be avoided at all costs. Huitlacoche the food, meanwhile, remains virtually unknown.
Its taste is difficult to describe: It is earthy and fungal but also richer and muskier than you expect. Its texture is varied, and every so often you crunch down on an identifiable kernel of corn, which is a little odd, like finding a minnow in the belly of Jaws. Oliver Strand of the Times referred to the taste as “falling somewhere between black trumpet mushrooms and a damp basement.” If so, Strand must have a truly delicious basement.
Huitlacoche has been on my radar for a while now, as Chicago’s Rick Bayless, one of my favorite chefs, has been relentlessly pushing it on our unsophisticated palates for years. Every once in a while it would turn it up on a menu in New York, usually buried under cheese in a quesadilla or a crêpe, hiding its true identity behind a mushroom mask. The dirty duo (Dos Caminos, Rosa Mexicano) have both featured it, and you can find it in a can on the dusty back shelves of nearly every Latin grocery in the city. Still huitlacoche keeps a low profile, although a recent burst of interest makes me think that its time may finally have come.
Much of the buzz started in March with the publication of a paper that basically called huitlacoche a superfood, full of lysine and beta-glucans. MSNBC then covered the story, along with farmers’ reactions when they learned that the corn they infected with Ustilago maydis could potentially sell for much more than the uninfected ears. Lest you too be momentarily transported by the idea of solving The Omnivore’s Dilemma with one stray fungus—no more artificial corn surplus, no more grain-fed beef, and nothing but Iowa fields of blackened, bulbous galls, waving gently in the breeze—corn smut mainly infects sweet corn, not field corn, which is somewhat more resistant to its wiles. Despite the disease’s prevalence, it’s also fairly difficult to intentionally inoculate crops.
So is huitlacoche the new açai? And how long will it be before it ends up on the menu at Chipotle? I’m not holding my breath; after all, this isn’t the first time huitlacoche has been declared the Next Big Thing, and researchers have been working on corn smut for decades. Fifteen years ago, two of the same authors published a paper praising the “considerable levels” of essential amino acids and fatty acids they found in huitlacoche, and noting its “increasing acceptance” by the North American public (the authors were based in Mexico). Cue crickets. In response to the recent media blitz, Bayless himself testily tweeted “strange they missed that original inoculation research done at U of IL & its been on r menus 20 yrs.”
Dr. Jerald Pataky is a Professor of Crop Science at the University of Illinois and has worked with small farmers who want to cultivate corn smut, providing advice to growers in Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and elsewhere. “All have been relatively small-scale operations,” he says; although his own research project received some funding from Frontera Foods, Bayless’ group, he has received no federal funding for his work, and is unaware of any large growers in the US. To those who might be concerned about the agricultural effects of intentional inoculation, he says “Ustilago maydis is a ubiquitous fungus that occurs naturally wherever corn is grown. It's highly unlikely that a few acres of huitlacoche production have any significant effect on the occurrence of ‘common smut’ on corn.”
One of the small growers Pataky has worked with is Three Sisters Garden in Kankakee, Illinois, who grow huitlacoche for Bayless’ Chicago restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. Tracey Vowell was the former managing chef of those restaurants, but now is an owner of the 9-acre farm, where they must painstakingly inject each ear of corn with the infection. It’s no wonder that production of huitlacoche has thus far been limited in the US, and its delicacy means that fresh huitlacoche must be frozen or canned for transport beyond local markets. D’Artagnan supplies frozen huitlacoche to some New York-area restaurants, but wholesale minimums make this difficult for the home cook to buy.
Of course, I still wanted to cook my own. Bayless chides that cooking with canned huitlacoche is akin to serving canned asparagus, but sadly this isn’t Oaxaca, and I’ve yet to find an enterprising local farmer selling smut next to their squash. In the end, I picked up a jar at Plaza 5 de Mayo on Church Street in Kensington, taking comfort from urban realist Robert Sietsema’s declaration that the canned variety is “excellent too”, and biked home to turn my prize into a filling for chiles rellenos.
A recurring theme when reading about huitlacoche is its insurmountable otherness. Bloggers and journos harp on its slushy consistency, its muddiness, its insidious origins. Blogger Steve, of The Sneeze/“Steve Don’t Eat It!” almost didn’t manage to eat it, and recommended that it be chased with Bactine. The reality is somewhat less sinister. Poking around in the kitchen while I cooked, my boyfriend commented, unfazed, that he “thought it was black beans.” Huitlacoche is inkier, leaving a gritty, midnight-black snail trail on your plate, but otherwise has approximately the same consistency as a thick, corn-studded black bean soup.
Of course if you’re the type that shies away from chicken skin and carrot tops, you needn’t fiddle with jars of admittedly odd-looking glop in order to try it for yourself; there are plenty of places in Brooklyn that have it on the menu. Chiles & Chocolate on 7th Avenue in Park Slope serves a sizeable huitlacoche quesadilla that’s stuffed to the gills with the black stuff, along with an excellent guacamole with chapolines (fried grasshoppers) which automatically bump the huitlacoche down one rung on the Weird Dinner ladder.
While I doubt that huitlacoche will ever make it as a mainstream ingredient, it may reach the level of squash blossoms and sweetbreads—oddities that grace many an appetizer menu, without making it into the latest edition of Betty Crocker. It hasn’t the luster of pomegranate or the cachet of green tea, but for a superfood, it’s pretty damn cool. A fungal plant infection cultivated by the Aztecs? How could you pass that up?
For recipes, including huitlacoche ice cream and stuffed Deviled Eggs, visit the University of Illinois Crop Science site.
Where to find huitlacoche dishes in Brooklyn:
Alimentos Saludables (5919 4th Avenue, Sunset Park): huitlacoche quesadilla
Alma (187 Columbia Street, Carroll Gardens): huitlacoche mac and cheese
Chavella’s (732 Classon Avenue, Prospect Heights): huitlacoche quesadilla
Chiles & Chocolate (54 7th Avenue, Park Slope):
James (605 Carlton Avenue, Prospect Heights): pressed chicken with bok choy and huitlacoche polenta
Mesa Coyoacan (372 Graham Avenue, Williamsburg): mushroom & huitlacoche quesadilla
El Rincon Jarocho (5507 5th Avenue, Sunset Park): huitlacoche quesadilla
Taqueria Cocoyoc (211 Wyckoff Avenue, Bushwick): huitlacoche quesadilla