Huitlacoche: A tasty delicacy or crop scourge?
By Mike Harris
If you favor smelly cheeses laced with blue mold and the earthy taste of mushrooms, you may appreciate the woodsy flavor of huitlacoche. With a laundry list of monikers, huitlacoche is known in the United States and elsewhere as a corn disease caused by the fungus ustilago maydis. It forces the metabolic process inside the cob to change, creating a nutritious (if unsightly) treat with an exotic, earthy flavor.
The common name of the "disease" is corn smut. In many Latin American countries, especially Mexico, it is a delicacy, often sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and, much to my delight, conspicuous amounts of garlic. It can then be added to eggs, tamales, or most often, as a filling in quesadillas. In Mexico huitlacoche is readily available in local markets, restaurants, and from country folk wandering the streets with their wares in a bucket.
Prior to the 1990s, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate the fungus, which was seen as a serious threat to corn crops, especially sweet corn. Sometime in the 90s, the USDA allowed some farmers to cultivate the delicacy. Cooks and food fanciers in the United States and elsewhere have tried to rename corn smut as "Mexican truffles" in an attempt to make it more appealing to the non-Latino palate. Outside Mexico, however, neither cultivation itself nor establishing huitlacoche as a truffle-like trend setter have been terribly successful.
If the Mexican truffle weren't so darned ugly, its popularity might improve. It can be described as a gnarly, gray-black mass of insidious-looking pustules that bubble up from, and consume, the corn kernels. Ready to rush right out and get some? Unfortunately fresh huitlacoche is nearly impossible to find outside of Latin America. The delicacy is sometimes sold in cans or jars, but---like tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican taste treats---it loses something in the translation from fresh to packaged.
In some foreign countries you may find dishes with huitlacoche in trendy Latino restaurants or at your favorite Mexican hole-in-the-wall. Better yet, travel to Mexico where you can savor this iconic delicacy freshly harvested, in situ. Eventually health-conscience foreigners may positively affect the supply and demand, and you won't have to travel south of the border to enjoy my new favorite: quesadillas con huitlacoche.