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08/08/2000

Tasty Smut

If the title of this piece has led you to this site in the anticipation
of pornographic talk or writing, I''m sorry to have misled you.
What we''re talking here is fungi. During World War II, my family
was among the many that had what was known then as a Victory
Garden (VG). VGs were a way to help to not only grow our
own food but I imagine the idea was also to save on the need to
transport less food, thus saving precious gasoline, which was
rationed in those days. Our VG served also to introduce me to
farming, if only to a relatively small degree. We actually had two
VG plots on a parcel of land donated for the cause by some
unknown, or perhaps even unknowing landowner.

What inspired these memories was an article by Darlyne
Murawski in the August issue of National Geographic entitled
"Fungi". Darlyne also took the beautiful pictures of various forms
of fungi - mushrooms of course. But she also portrayed the
fungus Cordyceps, whose spores penetrate an ant. Cordy then
feeds upon and kills the ant while the fungus grows into a little
mushroomy-looking object ready to release its own spores and
continue its dastardly deeds. Searching the literature on fungi, I
find that there are probably well over a million different species,
most of which have not yet been identified. These fungi can be
the source of great pleasure or great distress for us humans. For
example, fungi promote the fermentation leading to wine and are
responsible for penicillin and other antibiotics. On the other hand,
there are some 400 known types of fungi that cause maladies
ranging from athlete''s foot and jock itch to more serious diseases.
At the same time, other fungi process various ingredients to
provide nourishment for plants, including some of the vegetables
that we consume.

Fungi themselves as food for humans is really what this column is
about. I certainly enjoy mushrooms and particularly remember
my first Portabello mushroom sandwich, served in the dining
room of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park. Just yesterday
my wife called my attention to Martha Stewart on TV
demonstrating the making of this very sandwich. Another fungal
experience that lingers fondly in my memory dates back to 1973
in a hotel in Warsaw, Poland. The mushroom soup was out of
this world and this was in a Communist country still under the
sway of the USSR. Another fungal experience accompanied
golfing with my brother-in-law Bert in Cleveland. Bert picked
mushrooms on the way around the course and on our return, his
wife cooked up a breakfast of mushrooms and eggs that were
particularly memorable. Why do I go on like this about my
culinary experiences? It''s to establish that I harbor no prejudice
against fungi but actually enjoy them.

But smut? One of the pictures in the Geographic article was of
an ear of corn at the end of which was an ugly growth of Ustilago
maydis, otherwise known to us farmers as corn smut. As a
Victory Gardener, I can still remember my disgust when we
harvested an ear of corn, only to find it loaded with this cancerous
looking growth. What happens is that the spores of smut fungus
get into the corn when the kernels are forming. The result is that
the kernels grow as distended bulbous objects containing within
the skins of the kernels a bunch of black spores. These distended
bulbous clusters look sort of silvery in color due to the thin skin
of the kernels and the black stuff inside. Obviously, the presence
of this disgusting mess resulted in our throwing out any infected
ears and scattering some sort of copper-containing fungicide to
discourage any further smut.

What really got to me in the Geographic article was one sentence
stating that corn smut is considered a delicacy in Mexico and is
gaining popularity in the United States, where it is being marketed
as "Mexican truffles". To think that people eat this stuff blew my
mind but, on reflection, why should I be surprised? Some of my
friends and even one of my sons eat raw oysters! Further
research on corn smut turned up the fact that it is known as
huitlacoche in Mexico and that in Mayan it means ''food of the
gods''. I thought the gods must have been hard up for food in
those days. Furthermore, in Mexico, the price of ears of corn
sporting corn smut is considerably higher than just plain old ears
of corn, like the ones we savored for dinner last night.

For those of you who wish to expand your culinary experience,
take heart. The Mexicans can the smut and huitlacoche is indeed
beginning to attract its devotees in this country. If you''d like to
try huitlacoche soup, you can find a recipe on the Web site
http//www.mykoweb.com/recipes/mn_mar92.html
I noticed, however, that you shouldn''t use old dried-up smut,
especially if you''re a pregnant woman; uterine contractions may
result. The flavor is apparently earthy and sweetish, with a bit of
corn essence mixed in. De gustibus.

It seems that there are other smuts that infect such crops as wheat
and rice and that the Chinese have a taste for the wheat smut.
The massive celebration of St. Patrick''s Day in New York is, in a
way, a direct spin-off of a fungus. The reason for so many Irish
settling in New York goes back in large measure to the mid 1800s
potato famine in Ireland caused by a fungus. A million people
died and more than a million left Ireland for the U.S. and other
countries. (Would you believe that this morning I saw an
interview with George Bush, The Elder, who decried the media
attacks on Dan Quayle during his vice presidency. The reason I
bring this up is that I just noticed my spellchecker alerting me to
the fact I had spelled potato with an ''e'' on the end!)

Well, so much for smut. Let''s finish with just a bit about fungi in
general. According to the Geographic article, fungi are neither
plants nor animals. Yet, in my 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, I
find fungi defined as a group of simple plants that have no green
coloring matter. It furthermore states that fungi are simple plants
that have no stems, leaves or flowers. Now, it seems to me that a
mushroom has a stem or do I just not know the definition of
''stem''? Do these contradictions in definitions indicate a change in
our knowledge of the nature of fungi over the past four decades?
Naturally, I would not leave you hanging on so important a topic.
So, it''s off to search my 97 Encarta Encyclopedia CD for the
answer.

I''m back and am overwhelmed with the amount of information on
fungi on my CD. In fact, I return to you humbled by the
realization of how little familiarity I have with biological lingo. It
seems that some scientists are still in doubt about the proper
classification of fungi, or at least certain types of fungi. However,
since the work of a biologist named Whittaker in 1959, living
things have been classified in five different kingdoms - animals,
plants, fungi, protists and bacteria. Those of today''s doubtful
scientists place certain fungi in the protist camp. For those like
myself who might be unfamiliar with protists, let me attempt to
enlighten us both at the same time. It appears that protists are
simple organisms that show characteristics of both animals and
plants. Most, but not all protists are single cells. Like plants,
protists can manufacture their own food through photosynthesis
and many protists can also move around like animals under their
own power. Where protists differ from both plants and animals is
that protists don''t have cells organized into specialized tissues.
Examples of the protists among us are seaweeds and amoebas.
Protists are, however, very much like us animals and plants in that
we all are eukaryotes, i.e., our cells contain a nucleus. Bacteria,
whose cells do not contain a nucleus, are prokaryotes.

Why so much about protists? The feeling today is that fungi
evolved from unpigmented flagellates, which are in the protist
family. These flagellates are one-celled creatures with
appendages like tails used to help the flagellates motor around in
their environment. Fungi are now defined as single- or
multicellular organisms that obtain food by absorbing nutrients
through their cell walls. The fungi excrete enzymes that dissolve
the food so it can be absorbed. This process is responsible for the
decay of organic matter and the fungi, together with bacteria, are
responsible for the recycling of dead matter in nature. It is
thought that the fungi developed from the protists but as the fungi
developed the absorbing mechanism of feeding, they lost the
chlorophyll pigment needed for photosynthesis.

I hope all this smutty talk has not darkened your summer day. It
has mine. The humidity and temperature are rising rapidly as I''m
writing this and I can feel the fungi and the protists lying in wait.
I''ve got to turn on the air conditioning and try to keep those little
critters, whatever they are, at bay. And if you should try
huitlacoche, let me know how you liked it. It couldn''t be worse
than raw oysters!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-08/08/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

08/08/2000

Tasty Smut

If the title of this piece has led you to this site in the anticipation
of pornographic talk or writing, I''m sorry to have misled you.
What we''re talking here is fungi. During World War II, my family
was among the many that had what was known then as a Victory
Garden (VG). VGs were a way to help to not only grow our
own food but I imagine the idea was also to save on the need to
transport less food, thus saving precious gasoline, which was
rationed in those days. Our VG served also to introduce me to
farming, if only to a relatively small degree. We actually had two
VG plots on a parcel of land donated for the cause by some
unknown, or perhaps even unknowing landowner.

What inspired these memories was an article by Darlyne
Murawski in the August issue of National Geographic entitled
"Fungi". Darlyne also took the beautiful pictures of various forms
of fungi - mushrooms of course. But she also portrayed the
fungus Cordyceps, whose spores penetrate an ant. Cordy then
feeds upon and kills the ant while the fungus grows into a little
mushroomy-looking object ready to release its own spores and
continue its dastardly deeds. Searching the literature on fungi, I
find that there are probably well over a million different species,
most of which have not yet been identified. These fungi can be
the source of great pleasure or great distress for us humans. For
example, fungi promote the fermentation leading to wine and are
responsible for penicillin and other antibiotics. On the other hand,
there are some 400 known types of fungi that cause maladies
ranging from athlete''s foot and jock itch to more serious diseases.
At the same time, other fungi process various ingredients to
provide nourishment for plants, including some of the vegetables
that we consume.

Fungi themselves as food for humans is really what this column is
about. I certainly enjoy mushrooms and particularly remember
my first Portabello mushroom sandwich, served in the dining
room of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park. Just yesterday
my wife called my attention to Martha Stewart on TV
demonstrating the making of this very sandwich. Another fungal
experience that lingers fondly in my memory dates back to 1973
in a hotel in Warsaw, Poland. The mushroom soup was out of
this world and this was in a Communist country still under the
sway of the USSR. Another fungal experience accompanied
golfing with my brother-in-law Bert in Cleveland. Bert picked
mushrooms on the way around the course and on our return, his
wife cooked up a breakfast of mushrooms and eggs that were
particularly memorable. Why do I go on like this about my
culinary experiences? It''s to establish that I harbor no prejudice
against fungi but actually enjoy them.

But smut? One of the pictures in the Geographic article was of
an ear of corn at the end of which was an ugly growth of Ustilago
maydis, otherwise known to us farmers as corn smut. As a
Victory Gardener, I can still remember my disgust when we
harvested an ear of corn, only to find it loaded with this cancerous
looking growth. What happens is that the spores of smut fungus
get into the corn when the kernels are forming. The result is that
the kernels grow as distended bulbous objects containing within
the skins of the kernels a bunch of black spores. These distended
bulbous clusters look sort of silvery in color due to the thin skin
of the kernels and the black stuff inside. Obviously, the presence
of this disgusting mess resulted in our throwing out any infected
ears and scattering some sort of copper-containing fungicide to
discourage any further smut.

What really got to me in the Geographic article was one sentence
stating that corn smut is considered a delicacy in Mexico and is
gaining popularity in the United States, where it is being marketed
as "Mexican truffles". To think that people eat this stuff blew my
mind but, on reflection, why should I be surprised? Some of my
friends and even one of my sons eat raw oysters! Further
research on corn smut turned up the fact that it is known as
huitlacoche in Mexico and that in Mayan it means ''food of the
gods''. I thought the gods must have been hard up for food in
those days. Furthermore, in Mexico, the price of ears of corn
sporting corn smut is considerably higher than just plain old ears
of corn, like the ones we savored for dinner last night.

For those of you who wish to expand your culinary experience,
take heart. The Mexicans can the smut and huitlacoche is indeed
beginning to attract its devotees in this country. If you''d like to
try huitlacoche soup, you can find a recipe on the Web site
http//www.mykoweb.com/recipes/mn_mar92.html
I noticed, however, that you shouldn''t use old dried-up smut,
especially if you''re a pregnant woman; uterine contractions may
result. The flavor is apparently earthy and sweetish, with a bit of
corn essence mixed in. De gustibus.

It seems that there are other smuts that infect such crops as wheat
and rice and that the Chinese have a taste for the wheat smut.
The massive celebration of St. Patrick''s Day in New York is, in a
way, a direct spin-off of a fungus. The reason for so many Irish
settling in New York goes back in large measure to the mid 1800s
potato famine in Ireland caused by a fungus. A million people
died and more than a million left Ireland for the U.S. and other
countries. (Would you believe that this morning I saw an
interview with George Bush, The Elder, who decried the media
attacks on Dan Quayle during his vice presidency. The reason I
bring this up is that I just noticed my spellchecker alerting me to
the fact I had spelled potato with an ''e'' on the end!)

Well, so much for smut. Let''s finish with just a bit about fungi in
general. According to the Geographic article, fungi are neither
plants nor animals. Yet, in my 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, I
find fungi defined as a group of simple plants that have no green
coloring matter. It furthermore states that fungi are simple plants
that have no stems, leaves or flowers. Now, it seems to me that a
mushroom has a stem or do I just not know the definition of
''stem''? Do these contradictions in definitions indicate a change in
our knowledge of the nature of fungi over the past four decades?
Naturally, I would not leave you hanging on so important a topic.
So, it''s off to search my 97 Encarta Encyclopedia CD for the
answer.

I''m back and am overwhelmed with the amount of information on
fungi on my CD. In fact, I return to you humbled by the
realization of how little familiarity I have with biological lingo. It
seems that some scientists are still in doubt about the proper
classification of fungi, or at least certain types of fungi. However,
since the work of a biologist named Whittaker in 1959, living
things have been classified in five different kingdoms - animals,
plants, fungi, protists and bacteria. Those of today''s doubtful
scientists place certain fungi in the protist camp. For those like
myself who might be unfamiliar with protists, let me attempt to
enlighten us both at the same time. It appears that protists are
simple organisms that show characteristics of both animals and
plants. Most, but not all protists are single cells. Like plants,
protists can manufacture their own food through photosynthesis
and many protists can also move around like animals under their
own power. Where protists differ from both plants and animals is
that protists don''t have cells organized into specialized tissues.
Examples of the protists among us are seaweeds and amoebas.
Protists are, however, very much like us animals and plants in that
we all are eukaryotes, i.e., our cells contain a nucleus. Bacteria,
whose cells do not contain a nucleus, are prokaryotes.

Why so much about protists? The feeling today is that fungi
evolved from unpigmented flagellates, which are in the protist
family. These flagellates are one-celled creatures with
appendages like tails used to help the flagellates motor around in
their environment. Fungi are now defined as single- or
multicellular organisms that obtain food by absorbing nutrients
through their cell walls. The fungi excrete enzymes that dissolve
the food so it can be absorbed. This process is responsible for the
decay of organic matter and the fungi, together with bacteria, are
responsible for the recycling of dead matter in nature. It is
thought that the fungi developed from the protists but as the fungi
developed the absorbing mechanism of feeding, they lost the
chlorophyll pigment needed for photosynthesis.

I hope all this smutty talk has not darkened your summer day. It
has mine. The humidity and temperature are rising rapidly as I''m
writing this and I can feel the fungi and the protists lying in wait.
I''ve got to turn on the air conditioning and try to keep those little
critters, whatever they are, at bay. And if you should try
huitlacoche, let me know how you liked it. It couldn''t be worse
than raw oysters!

Allen F. Bortrum