Sunday, August 9, 2009

Re'ay, Devarim 14:3. Not Torah, Not Politics, Just So. (well, a tiny bit of Torah.)

This post started out have absolutely nothing to do with Divrei Torah, posted just because I thought the people who read this blog might find it interesting. As you will see, this, too, turned out to have a Torah connection.

I plant a garden for my mother shetichyeh. There are a few absolutes; the garden must have dahlias (which, in Lithuania, were called Georginas) and asters, but not zinnias. Zinnias are 'common.' There have to be tomatoes so the great-grandchildren can enjoy picking them. And there has to be rhubarb, for rhubarb and strawberry compot. Beyond that, I have a free (and calloused) hand.

The past two years, I've planted corn, or, in my mother's words, kukuruza. Corn cannot be planted in the single digits. Especially in my case, where the purpose is so that my mother can look at the back yard and see lush greenery reminiscent of the summers of her childhood, I have to plant a good stand of corn. So last year I planted an area of around fifteen by ten, and this year I planted fifteen by thirty feet of corn. I really can't guarantee a crop, what with malevolent squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons, but, at least, a block of corn eight feet tall looks nice waving in the wind, and that is the primary reason it's there.

This year, though, I do have some ears of corn, at least for the moment. If the four-legged vandals realize what I have, they'll rip it apart in a night, but if it lasts a week or so, my grandchildren will have something to pick.

This morning, I noticed that one ear of corn was swollen, and I recognized that it was infected with corn smut. What, you ask, is corn smut? Here's something I found about it:
GourmetSleuth Huitlacoche [wee-tlah-KOH-cheh]
Mexican Corn Truffle
Huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) is a fungus (Ustilago maydis) which grows naturally on ears of corn. The fungus is harvested and treated as a delicacy. The earthy and somewhat smoky fungus is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups and other specialty dishes. (...) Another interesting story told by Ms. Fussell is that of a dinner presented by the James Beard House in New York City in 1989. The purpose was to give Americans a tasting of the corn smut but with a new name “Mexican Truffle”. The menu was created by Josefina Howard of Rosa Mexicano restaurant and included huitlacoche appetizers, soup, crepes, tortilla torte, and even an huitlacoche ice cream.

One slight correction: it does not grow on the corn, it takes over the corn and renders each kernel grotesquely swollen and blackened.

So, this year, I decided to grill it and see what it tasted like. We had, in other words, corn smut for a side dish. I wrapped it in tin foil, put it into hot charcoal in the barbecue, and served it for dinner.

We had a dinner guest, Mrs. Victoria Weisenberg, a friend and colleague of my rebbitzen, who teaches college microbiology and anatomy. She was thrilled to actually see something she had lectured about, less thrilled to be dared to taste it, but after some moments of good, sensible hesitation, she did taste it. My rebbitzen has more seichel than that, so it was just me, Mrs. Weisenberg, and my oldest son. As we put it, we had an warm and congenial dinner, and then we all sat down and enjoyed some smut.

Having partaken, I can tell you that you're not missing anything. Even disregarding an appearance that would fit nicely in a shadowy corner of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, its taste and texture were utterly insipid, without character, and bland. But, on the plus side, it didn't kill anyone.

The photo above is the piece of the ear that was left over after dinner. The next photo is not mine, just something I found on the net.

And that explains the title of this post, which refers to
יד,ג לֹא תֹאכַל כָּל תּוֹעֵבָה

When I posted this initially, I invited local readers to taste the piece I had left over. But when I checked it a few hours later, it had already begun to melt into primordial ooze. And despite that, the next day, when the woman who helps clean the house came, she saw it on the counter and said "Oh, where did you get that? It is very good." And she took it home to add to her home-made tortillas.

Now, even corn smut can raise interesting questions of halacha. The Bracha on corn is Ha'adama, because it grows from the earth. Plants are autotrophes, photosynthesizing their food from water and simple minerals. The bracha on Fungi, on the other hand, is She'hakol, because they are considered to grow from "the air;" they are heterotrophes, organisms that eat ready-made complex organic food. What about Corn Smut? On the one hand, it clearly is a fungus that grows on corn. On the other hand, since it doesn't develop into an independent entity, as do the fruiting bodies of mushrooms and other fungi, perhaps it remains defined as part of the corn, albeit spongy, swollen and black corn. (The logic is similar to ubar yerech imo; the child, once it is born, is obviously an independent entity. But so long as it is contained within and deriving nutrition from its mother, it is halachicly viewed as a part of her.)

I believe that the latter is correct, but I am not certain. So, in the highly unlikely case that you do eat corn smut, I suggest that you make sure you've already made a hamotzi or both she'hakol and ha'adama. I'm proud to say that this is very likely a question of first impression. We take our satisfactions where we find them.



  1. Send it to us Fed Ex and we'll, um, have a taste.

  2. Ah, you're recovering from the Sheva Brachot! Good to hear from you.

    Sorry, but I just checked on it, and found out that it is quickly returning to elemental matter, which explains why the canned version looks like something out of a horror movie. But I did take a picture of it, and will post it tomorrow, bl'n.

  3. What a wonderful example of kivud eim. There is more Torah in this entry than what you credit yourself.

  4. That's a very nice thing to say. Thank you.

  5. All I know is that one man's smut is another man's mitzvah...