What? Smut!Farmers always thought smut - the fungus that swells and blackens kernels of corn - spoiled their crop, but now they're learning that there could be big bucks in the black goo.

It may be hard to believe, but there are folks who eat the fungus, even enjoy it. In fact, folks dining at some trendy restaurants in New York City are willing to pay $15 or more for entrees prepared with the stuff.

In such restaurants, smut can be found in sauces, soups, crepes, souffles, meat and fish fillings, even ice cream.

For those who tinker in the kitchen, some suggest slicing it up and sauteeing it in butter.

Those smutted ears of corns that farmers threw away or plowed under this summer could have brought as much as 50 cents each. An ear of smut-less sweet corn fetches less than half that.

Even at those prices, Christina Arnold of El Aficionado Ltd. - a specialty Mexican food wholesaler with offices in New York City and Arlington, Va. - has had trouble persuading farmers to harvest smut. They just can't believe some folks actually eat the stuff.

``It's the ugliest corn on the cob you could imagine,' said Mike Leggett, a Williamston farmer thinking about converting his 80 acres of corn to smut production in 1991. ``It's so ugly you wouldn't think people would want to eat it.'

But ugly is only skin deep, Arnold said. In Mexico, where smut is known by its Aztec name ``huitlacoche,' it is a delicacy that has been part of the diet for hundreds of years.

Mexico's national nutrition institute says smut is a low calorie, heart-healthy dish that supplies protein, calcium, ascorbic acid, iron, riboflavin, niacin and thiamin - and no cholesterol and very little fat.

``It was a struggle to get the farmers to understand,' said Arnold, whose mother was from Mexico and whose father was from Indiana.

She likes to refer to smut as maize mushroom or the Mexican truffle.

``It has a positive image,' she explained. Smut, she says, has an earthy, smoky flavor with a hint of corn. Others who have tried it say it tastes like mushrooms.

Farmers who attempt to harvest smutted corn find it is no easy task. Infected ears must be hand-picked at precisely the right moment and that generally requires constant inspection.

If farmers wait too long, the smut dries, sending its spores to the wind.

Once picked, the ears must be carefully packed vertically, refrigerated and shipped. They have a shelf life of only five days unless frozen.

All that effort and handling seemed more than it was worth to James Martin, a Burgaw farmer who teaches marine technology at Cape Fear Community College.

``I tried to go through my corn and select it like she said it needed to be selected, and I had absolutely no success,' Martin said. ``It's real time-consuming.'

So far, Martin and Leggett are the only two North Carolina farmers who have shown an interest in harvesting smut. Most of Arnold's crop comes from farmers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

Leggett has never tried smut. But if folks are willing to pay good money for it, he's willing to listen to its proponents.

``I'd like to turn my farm all over to a high-value crop,' he said.

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