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Amaizing gastronomy: sup on smut?

Amaizing gastronomy: Sup on smut?

Many U.S. farmers would echo the sentiments of the corn grower who recently sought advice from a gardening magazine. "It's the ugliest-looking blight I've ever seen," he wrote, describing a fungus infecting his crop. "Ears swell and burst forth in a disgusting array of huge, sickly white kernels filled with black powder."

But one man's disgust is another's degustation. And if ethnobotanist Kevin Dahl has his way, this much-maligned fungus -- known as corn smut -- will soon become part of American nouvelle cuisine.

The mushroom-like fungus has long played a part in Native American cultures, notes Dahl, a graduate student at Prescott (Ariz.) College. A Mexican folk tale tells of four women grinding corn for a harvest meal who were visited by an apparition as they began to discard "sooted" corn--ears infected with smut. The spirit, known as Corn Soot Woman, promised the grinders that if they would keep the infected corn, all new ears would grow fat and plentiful. And so, according to legend, began the practice of retaining sooted corn.

Dahl observes that many indigenous groups in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest regard it as a delicacy. Members of the Hopi tribe fry the fungus, and the Western Apaches have been reported to eat smut raw off the ear or to boil it and sprinkle it with acorn meal. Food writer Diana Kennedy noted in 1986 that the fungus is sold in food markets near Mexico City. Corn smut is "perfectly delicious, with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is almost impossible to describe," she writes in The Cuisines of Mexico. "I quite imagine that [it] may have been the ambrosia of the Aztec gods."

Dahl says most people in the United States view corn smut with revulsion because they question the safety of fungal foods in general. Historically, corn smut has been rumored to cause a variety of human ailments, but Dahl says studies by others suggest it is safe aside from a potential to trigger skin allergies.

The fungus frustrates farmers because it damages some 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. corn crop annually, Dahl says, noting that fungicide sprays reduce the blight but also reduce overall crop yields. Small-scale gardeners often simply destroy infected plants. Instead, suggests Dahl, growers might consider taking a cue from the Mexicans and marketing the fungus. "For elegant restaurants, the serving of smut fresh in season, when it is known to be at its best, could be a selling point," he says.

Dahl, whose main research interest lies in conserving seed strains cultivated by Native Americans, says he plans to set up a mail-order business to sell smut -- the edible type, that is.

Ron Cowen reports from Tempe, Ariz., at the annual conference of the Society of Ethnobiology
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Title Annotation:corn smut as food
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 31, 1990
Words:465
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