Corn smut for dinner tonight...yum!

Oct 16, 2012

Corn smut for dinner tonight...yum!

Oct 16, 2012

I often look at foods and wonder, “Who’s idea was it to eat this?” Some foods just don’t look like they should be food, including huitlacoche.

Huitlacoche is corn smut — a fungus that often infects sweet corn during times of drought. It enters the plant through the ovaries, and replaces the corn kernels with large tumor-like spores that look like really ugly mushrooms. Farmers in the U.S. have spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate the infection. The UC Davis Student Farm has a bad case of corn smut this year, and it’s threatening to ruin their entire crop.

But it may not be such a bad thing. Often known as the Mexican truffle, huitlacoche is considered a delicacy in Mexico. In fact, the Aztecs used to purposely scratch their corn plant with a knife to encourage the growth of huitlacoche.

According to this article in the Huffington Post, huitlacoche may actually be more nutritious than the corn it infected. It’s full of protein, minerals, and other nutritious compounds that don’t always exist in the corn itself. It’s also more valuable than the corn itself — in a study conducted by University of Wisconsin, an ear of huitlacoche sold for approximately $1.20 and cost about 41 cents to produce. An ear of corn without the infection cost less than 10 cents to produce, but sold for only a few cents more.

Although it sells for approximately $20 per pound in Napa Valley, few American growers have converted to growing the fungus. Most American growers lack the resources needed for inoculation, and huitlacoche is highly perishable; however, demand is slowly increasing and several American growers have started growing the specialized crop.

Huitlacoche is typically found in tacos, quesadillas, tamales, and other traditional Mexican cuisine. In the U.S., it’s mostly found canned in Mexican grocery stores, and can occasionally be found in high-end restaurants or traditional Mexican restaurants. Want to give it a try? For suggestions of restaurants that serve the delicacy in the San Francisco Bay Area, read this blog at  Or if you’re really brave and want to cook it yourself, try including it as a side dish or making huitlacoche soup.

I was out at the UC Davis Student Farm this weekend looking for huitlacoche, and sure enough, about one in every 10 ears of corn had it. Though it could be profitable, the student farm has no intention of selling it this time around.

“We just don’t have the resources to harvest it, and we don’t have the market here to make it profitable” said Edwina King, the Market Garden Coordinator at the UCD Student Farm.

But that won’t stop some locals from getting excited about the crop. Jessica Myles, a UC Davis graduate student who helped me identify the fungus at the student farm, harvested some herself.

“I’m going to go home and cook it up and freeze it, I’m so excited!”

She’s promised to make me huitlacoche tamales. As curious as I am about trying it, I may have to close my eyes while I eat it. Stay tuned.

By Marissa Palin
Author - Centennial Program Coordinator