Professor introduces unusual edible fungus to Madison

Sept. 19, 2006

by Barbara Wolff

Huitlacoche stands at the precise intersection of agronomy, cultural anthropology, economics and the culinary arts.

Far from idle metaphor, this intersection has enjoyed a three-year occupation as an actual place, right on top of an ear of corn growing in Troy Gardens on Madison’s north side.

Huitlacoche is said to be a gift of the rainy season in Mexico. You would never know it by its descriptive titles, though: From the rather benign “Mexican truffle,” we move to “corn smut” and “raven’s excrement” (the Aztec choice). What this organism really is, is a fungus, akin to mushrooms, growing inside individual kennels of corn and distending them.

ydia Zepeda, professor of consumer science, examines huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a delicacy in Mexico

Lydia Zepeda, professor of consumer science, examines huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a delicacy in Mexico, during a summer festival at Troy Gardens in Madison. The Troy Community Farm grew the huitlacoche as part of a partnership research project with UW–Madison, with technical support from the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

A first acquaintance with huitlacoche may not prove all that appetizing. However, it is rapidly gaining ground in this country due to its high nutrient count (all essential amino acids, complete protein and high fiber), making it a popular meat substitute, as well as for its pungent flavor.

Lydia Zepeda, a professor of consumer science affiliated with the women’s studies program and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, became a convert to huitlacoche recently.

“I lived in Mexico for a while but had never tasted huitlacoche. I found it intriguing, so I investigated its history and did some market research to see what chefs and the public thought about huitlacoche. The overwhelming reaction to it has been wonderful! Those who have never tried it, but who are eager to try new things, almost always like it. Those who are familiar with it are pleased to find it in Wisconsin — and often surprised,” she says.

Though a delicacy in Mexico for at least 500 years, huitlacoche has had a nasty reception in this country. “When Europeans first encountered huitlacoche they saw a disease and spent the next 500 years trying to prove it was harmful and to figure out how to eradicate it,” Zepeda says. “They could do neither. In reality, it’s less toxic than wheat, although the fungicides developed to kill huitlacoche don’t, and are very harmful to humans.”

Since first her first introduction to huitlacoche in 2002, Zepeda approaches it with a missionary zeal. “Today, if you looked in my freezer you would find ice cream, frozen waffles, jam ... and huitlacoche,” she says.

Lydia Zepeda at Troy Gardens with two graduate students

Lydia Zepeda (center) at Troy Gardens with two graduate students, Willow Russell (left), conservation biology and sustainable development, and Camilla Vargas, agronomy.

The Huitlacoche Project emerged, she says, from a desire to enhance the economic stability of communities of color in Madison. Working with agronomy professor Bill Tracy and UW–Madison alumna and now Troy Gardens staffer Kathy Gonzales, the team first discussed growing squash blossoms, epazote and tomatillos.

“We settled on huitlacoche because Bill is a corn guy,” Zepeda says. She adds that the value of huitlacoche, which in Mexico approaches the cost of morels, also was a plus.

“Bill worked on propagating huitlacoche while I assessed consumer demand for it,” Zepeda says. Cooking demonstrations evolved into a huitlacoche festival in Madison last year. “We might have had the only one in the world right here!” she says.

Clients for the fungus usually are Hispanic peoples and Anglo “foodies,” says Zepeda, adding that both cohorts really appreciate the availability of fresh huitlacoche, since grocers stocking it here usually carry only cans. “There’s no texture!” she says.

The initial demos and huitlacoche festival not only provided a sense of the potential market here but also has paid dividends to both the Hispanic and Anglo communities in Madison. Unfortunately, the grant supporting the project will expire at the end of this year, and the future of huitlacoche cultivation at Troy Gardens is in flux.

“Growing huitlacoche has given Troy Gardens a chance to let the Hispanic community learn more about it and about other urban gardens. When we began this project in 2002 there were no Hispanics or Latinos involved in Troy Gardens. Now we have a Hispanic staff member and some gardeners. And interest continues to grow,” she says. “Huitlacoche also has been a great way for the Anglo community to get to know more about the culture and food of Mexico. Eating together is a great way to create community and foster communication. Really, food is the best ambassador!”

Speaking of ambassador, Zepeda will be a delegate this fall at Terra Madre, an international food show and conference in Turin, Italy. While there she also will meet with people in Madison sister city Mantova about establishing food and gardening exchanges. She also will demonstrate cooking with huitlacoche — “I like to use them for quesadillas, lasagna and crepes,” she says — in Jack Kloppenburg’s Food, Culture and Society class this semester.

Her work with the Huitlacoche Project has brought Zepeda a 2006 School of Human Ecology Excellence in Outreach Award. For more information about the Huitlacoche Project or Troy Gardens, visit http://www.troygardens.org/huitlacocheproject.html.