1990 - Volume #14, Issue #2, Page #18[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
Sweet Corn Smut
Christina Arnold's company, El Avicionado, Ltd., provides smut from sweet corn to restaurants specializing in authentic Mexican cuisine. She pays farmers $1 to $2 a pound (about 50 cents an ear) for the swollen silvery globules which she says make a great "farm fungus feast".
"Corn smut has been enjoyed for centuries in Central and South America," says Arnold, whose mother was born in Mexico. "It's a high-priced delicacy in many countries but it's always been regarded as poisonous in the U.S. simply because of the way it looks."
The USDA doesn't allow fresh corn smut to be imported from Mexico so Arnold contracts with U.S. growers. In 1988 she bought only about 50 lbs. of smut but last year increased the amount to 3,000 lbs. - mostly from farmers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. She says she could have sold much more if there had been a greater supply.
According to Arnold, corn smut tastes somewhat like mushrooms but has a smoky, sweet taste with a hint of corn flavor. She says it tastes great with vegetables, as a filling for meat and fish, as a soup or as a base for sauces, and can even be used to make ice cream (in some countries "fungus ice cream" is considered a real treat).
In order to avoid public confusion about the potential for toxicity from aflatoxin on field corn, Arnold accepts only smut from sweet corn. However, she says smut from field corn is also safe to eat.
Arnold asks fanners to remove the smut from the cob. Three small ears produce about a pound of smut. Arnold charges $8 a pound for smut wholesale.
According to Arnold, only 10 to 20% of the ears in a normal sweet corn crop develop smut. However, there are ways to induce smut so that up to 50% of the crop develops the fungus. One way is to use genetically susceptible sweet corn varieties such as Silver Queen, Quicksilver, Candy Bar II, or Burgundy. Another way is to apply organic fertilizer such as cow and chicken manure which normally stays in contact with the soil to encourage growth of the spores which are driven by the wind onto plants. The weather can also influence smut formation. For example, hail-storms cause injury to the corn plant making it more susceptible to smut development. Researchers are working on inoculation techniques that promote smut growth. "However, even if these techniques were perfected, inoculation would probably be too labor intensive for practical large-scale use," she notes.
Smut is harvested by hand about three weeks after mid-silk or 7 to 10 days before sweet corn is ready for harvest, when the smut growths still have a white membrane and are fleshy. Smut must be picked in the morning when it's still cool and kept out of sunlight. Leaves should be left on for extra protection and insulation. Freshly picked smut should also be refrigerated.
Corn smut is extremely fragile and must be picked by hand because it damages easily. It will deteriorate quickly if the smut growths are punctured. "We haven't found a way to harvest corn smut on a large-scale basis without ruining it," says Arnold. "Corn smut has a short shelf life of only five days and should be frozen because it disintegrates under the pressure of its own weight. Growers check fields twice a week for ripe smut and harvest only cobs that are at least 50% covered with smut. It isn't cost effective to harvest cobs with less smut."
For more information, contact: FARM SHOW Followup, El Aficionado, 540 E. 20th St., New York, N.Y. 10009 (ph 212 477-8947).
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