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Dear Matthew Alice:

We grew a lot of corn this year, and some of it got this gross-looking gray and white crud on the ears, so we picked all those and put them out to be picked up by the trash man. A couple of hours later, some people came up to the door and asked if they could take the corn home. They looked pretty happy to have found moldy corn, and there was a little bit of a language barrier, so I just said yes and they said thank you and took the corn and walked off. What were they so happy about? What's the deal with the corn crud? Should we save our cruddy corn next year and sell it in a yard sale?

-- Flummoxed Farmers in Corn Crud Land

You threw out cuitlacoche, a Mexican delicacy that looks pretty awful but tastes like a cross between mushrooms and corn when it's picked early enough. It's called corn smut, though botanically it's Ustilago maydis, a soil- or airborne fungus that invades corn kernels and makes them blow up into big puffballs. Wait too long and the spores inside the kernel mature and turn black, then the stuff tastes awful. (Speaking of which, in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, coche means "black" and cuitla means "excrement." Black-poop soup was a popular dish. Aztec gourmets had nerves of steel....) You can buy cuitlacoche in cans, but I wouldn't recommend it. Some tiendas sell it fresh during corn season. It's cultivated in the U.S. on a limited basis. But if corn smut isn't your cup of mushrooms, next year plant U. maydis-resistant corn or, better yet, plant something else in the corn patch for several years. There's no chemical control available.

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