Infection or delicacy?

Yesterday’s find allows me to introduce a question that is likely to come up frequently here: Is This Really Food?

My approach toward this question was honed during a year in central Africa. Unfortunately, none of the photos have survived. So I will draw for you one of the many items I ate that I knew, at the time, would afford me huge points upon the recounting at cocktail parties in the West, assuming I lived:

As near as I can recall, this is one of the handsomer caterpillars I ate. The best way is roasted on a stick, like a marshmallow, by the dozen.

As near as I can recall, this is one of the handsomer caterpillars I ate. The best way is roasted on a stick, like a marshmallow, by the dozen.


Plus I was curious about the flavor. Are you curious? I recall that one of my strongest thoughts afterward was that it does not taste like chicken — or pork, or monkey, or snail, any other meat I’ve tasted. Luca Turin would be able to describe it, but not I.

My food adventurousness has its limits. I wouldn’t have identified caterpillars as food, except that the BaAka guys I worked with in that forest were obsessed with them. They were not adventurous eaters, in context. Another American field assistant had the idea in his head that he should eat everything the gorillas did, and the BaAka were strongly against that. He was severely ostracized after he made jam from an icky watermelon-shaped, soap-scented fruit called ita ti bodundu (“sibling of bodundu,” it didn’t even have its own name) that he found on the ground, and the guys were convinced it was to blame for the malaria he came down with a few days later. In a forest with so many species, a conservative approach toward strange foods would be highly self-preservative. With that kind of attitude, it must have taken countless generations to figure out what was edible. I’m with the BaAka and like any suspicious royal: I like to know someone else has tried it and lived.

All this to say that seeing huitlacoche on corn didn’t, at first, register as edible on my foodar.

I’d be more inclined to agree with corn farmers who consider it a disease, or Steve, the author of “Steve, Don’t Eat It!”, a fellow who lumped huitlacoche (albeit canned, as a black slime), with Beggin’ Strips, Ralphs Potted Meat Food Product, circa-1991 Urkel-Os, and prison wine (brewed in his bathroom). His illustration sums up his attitude toward this fungus:

Mooched from TheSneeze.com. Truth-in-advertising for huitlacoche, aka corn smut.

Mooched from TheSneeze.com. Truth-in-advertising for huitlacoche, aka corn smut.

Also, Wikipedia says huitlacoche is a Nahuatl word meaning “raven’s excrement.”

On the other hand, it’s a delicacy. Salmon with huitlacoche butter. Huitlacoche flan, crepes, tamales. My internet search yields more raving about how hard it is to find than how tasty it is, I note. Near Madison, Troy Gardens has a project to deliberately propagate the stuff, and they seem aware of the need to teach Wisconsonians that it’s edible. They describe the taste as a cross between mushroom and corn.

Unlike the canned product, fresh smut is rather pretty until it starts to sporelate, as on the right. I think that's what it's doing.

Unlike the canned product, fresh smut is rather pretty until it starts to sporelate, as on the right. I think that's what it's doing.

I found the goiterish growths on the corn at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station experimental garden, while volunteering there yesterday. Much of the garden’s produce ends up at the Second Harvest food bank — but not, apparently, including the smut.

A fellow eater, Raquel, alerts me to the deliciousness of huitlacoche quesadillas. That will give me the excuse to seek out some fresh masa. But I’ll have to leave you hanging. No experimental fungus tastings before 10 a.m. is the rule I just made up.

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One response to “Infection or delicacy?

  1. Pingback: Fungus consumed « Madison Forager

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