Mexico City's Markets Are Full of Corn Smut

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Mexico City's Markets Are Full of Corn Smut

The sooty, grey piles of huitlacoche in Mexico City's markets look like rotten teeth, but they're a delicious product of diseased corn, prized by fungus connoisseurs for their umami-rich flavor and now more profitable than the corn they...
August 25, 2014, 2:00pm

The predictable downpours that shower Mexico City during the rainy season bring more than soggy shoes and the constant need to tote around an umbrella. La temporada de lluvias, as it's called, floods the city's markets with dozens of varieties of locally grown mushrooms, June through August. Among the chanterelles, clavitos, oyster mushrooms, and pambazos at market, is huitlacoche, one of the most regarded and mysterious of fungi.

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Often referred to as the Mexican truffle or corn smut, Ustilago maydis leads a dual life as disease and delicacy, an anachronistic fungus that naturally appears in cornfields throughout the country. The fungus is a corn-specific blight that infects the plant before ears form, causing nascent kernels to discolor and swell with elephantiasis-like tumors.

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Most huitlacoche sold in Mexico City is grown in small farms on the outskirts of urban sprawl. In nearby towns like Tepotztlan and Toluca, the smut is harvested and trucked into the Central de Abasto mercado, an unfathomably large wholesale market in Iztapalapa that dwarfs Japan's Tsukiji, the central hub in a vast distribution network. From there, huitlacoche is purchased to sell at smaller weekly markets or tianguis throughout the city. Pulled from the cob and cordoned into mounds by vendors, the sooty, blueish-grey kernels look like piles of rotten teeth.

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At the Tuesday tiangui in Condesa, Julio Luciano and his mother Victoria Fermin are somewhat of a rarity. They are vendors who only sell what they themselves have grown. For over 30 years, they have made the trek from Atlacomulco to the same spot, to sell bundles of squash flowers, wilds herbs, plastic Sprite bottles filled with raw milk, and huitlacoche, beautifully mottled and misshapen.

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"The fact is," says Luciano, "huitlacoche is an infection, so it just appears in the fields. It's a natural thing and there is nothing we can do to generate more." He gets to the inherent tension of huitlacoche in the modern era: How can one manufacture something that occurs spontaneously?

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The Aztecs recognized huitlacoche as a savorable foodstuff, but the United States took a decidedly different approach. For the farmers who opened their golden ears of corn to find turgid, ebony pustules rupturing oily, black spores, it easy to see why the US spent billions of dollars throughout the 20th century to thwart the pathogenic disease. It is only in the past 20 years that a dramatic shift toward the commercial production of the fungi has occurred. The specialty mushroom market, a relatively new commercial enterprise, swells as people learn that these things, as disturbing as they look, are actually edible. Due to the increasing size of the Mexican and Mexican-American population in the United States and the demand for novel seasonal ingredients, interest in huitlacoche, on both sides of the border, is increasing rapidly.

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"I'm not sure what the larger producers do," shrugs Luciano. "Maybe release the spores into the air or something like that." He is not far off. Industrial huitlacoche producers use a technique called "silk channel inoculation," an artificial booster through injection or by scraping the plant that greatly increases the percentage of a corn crop that will turn to huitlacoche. Un-aided natural production, for farmers like Luciano, yields, "maybe 1 to 2 percent of our entire field."

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Even with artificial inoculation, production levels remain inconsistent as scientists, scholars, and phytopathological researchers scramble to figure out how to increase yields. Large agricultural conglomerates are pouring money into research; the Kellogg Foundation recently partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an attempt to produce huitlacoche in local farms. Interestingly, certain corners of the US have had a longer history with corn smut. It was consumed by the Hidatsa people of upper Missouri and in plots from Gainesville to upstate New York small-scale organic farmers who recognize the black, bulbous growths as rare comestibles, are able to sell what crops up in their fields to chefs and restaurants. Huitlacoche is now recognized as a growth more profitable than the corn it destroys, marking a reversal of the US's attempts to eradicate the disease.

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Huitlacoche still has a long way to go in the US (most of the huitlacoche sold in the US still is frozen or canned) but in Mexico City it is on every street corner. The inky sauté of huitlacoche is a ubiquitous filling in thousands of antojito stands, puestos, and fondas. It's earthy umami-rich phenomenon, a reminder of a long lineage captured in a toasted corn quesadilla. Spawned naturally or purposefully cultivated, Mexico will be savoring the incomparable flavors of huitlacoche, while the US plays catch up to an ancient taste.