Food

Feast of Fungus

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Good news arrived in my inbox: “Rainy Season is Huitlacoche Season!” The Mexican restaurant La Palapa, on Saint Mark’s, was proud to announce the fruits of some farmer networking: they had procured a local smut connection.

Corn season—a precious, joyous time—is at its height now, and those of us who have waited all year for it might have a hard time celebrating the sight of an ear stricken with huitlacoche, a pathogenic fungal disease commonly known as “corn smut” here in the states. Other nicknames include “the black gold of the Aztecs” and the less appetizing “excrement of the gods”.

The disease infects corn and ruins much of the crop. But, like so many culinary anomalies, the stuff has come to be considered a delicacy, and farmers in Mexico often hope for an outbreak, since they can sell huitlacoche at much higher prices than healthy corn. So though it’s smutty, huitlacoche isn’t kiddie porn or the stuff of foot fetishists. Its fans take pleasure not in the objectification of any human group, but in the grotesque suffering of corn.

Some farmers, like Wim Levine in Massachusetts who supplied La Palapa with organic smut, infect a crop of corn on purpose. Photos of huitlacoche’s victims are reminiscent of images of Gonorrhea or Elephantitus from high school biology textbooks. The kernels are grossly fattened and blackened, erupting from the ear in bulbous lumps. I always had a feeling I’d like the stuff. I have an instinct to root for the under dog, the ugly duckling.

So off I went to La Palapa to feast on fungus. I told myself to expect mushrooms, not corn, thinking the sickly kernels would have lost all resemblance to their sweet, bright counterparts. La Palapa’s Huitlacoche Festival menu was overwhelming, with smut-filled crepes, chalupas, soup, enchiladas, doraditas, and even flan. Indecisive tourist that I am, I quickly opted for the 4-course tasting menu ($45). Plus the flan.

First came the sopa, roasted corn and crema soup with an enchanting blob of fungus on top. The soup was thick and creamy, and the corn was incredibly sweet. The huitlacoche was earthy and mellow, but not the intense morel or shitake I was expecting. (In 1989, the James Beard Foundation held a fancy huitlacoche dinner and tried to rename the holy excrement “Mexican truffle,” but the euphemism didn’t catch on.) Next were quesadillas with huitlacoche and three cheeses, which was delicious but mostly tasted of cheese.

The mysterious flan arrived and was devoured quickly. The huitlacoche and corn made a sweet custard, and more fungus served as garnished. Still, I waited for the black sludge to taste more like it looked. The doraditas accomplished the task. The puffy fried turnovers were filled with huitlacoche, queso cotijo, and epazote, an herb traditionally paired with corn. Because there was no fresh corn involved, the musky taste of the huitlacoche came forward, along with its slightly mealy consistency. It was no truffle, but it was pleasantly dirty.

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