The first time I tried corn fungus I was a wide-eyed college student living in a rough barrio in southern Mexico City. My friends and I stumbled into the stereotypical “hole in the wall” restaurant that was stuck in between two houses in a series of colorful interconnected buildings along a single block. Outside the sidewalk were uneven and cracked, that is, if there was a sidewalk. The sign outside the restaurant read: “Huaraches Leti.” Literal translation: “Sandals Leti”
Huarache is Spanish for sandal, but a huarache is also a kind of dish, which is served in this restaurant. When I entered there to my right was an impressive layout of Mexican grub with aromas too irresistible to resist. At least half a dozen cazuelas, or giant clay bowls, showed off different temptations. There was squash flower, or flor de calabaza, green chile and cheese, chicharron, or fried pig’s skin, shredded chicken and tomato, and then this tar-like mush that looked revolting.
“What’s that?” I asked the woman in the ruffled apron behind the counter.
“Es cuitlacoche,” she said. “You want a quesadilla?” I lifted my eyebrows and tersed my lips. The stuff looked questionable, but the smell…the smell was intoxicating.
“Orale,” I said. “Give me one with queso oaxaca. I don’t know what cuitlacoche is, but let me taste it first. If I like it, then you can tell me what it is.”
With the first bite I was already heavenward. Soft and chewy, the taste was mushroom-like: earthy with a hint of raw corn. Oooooh, and add to that a little lime and fresh chile salsa….I could’ve died. It really was delicious and unlike anything I’d ever tasted.
During the week that I lived in this barrio, called Santo Domingo, I went to Huaraches Leti as often as possible. And it wasn’t until five years after that stay that I was finally able to go back.
Now I was a well-traveledm career driven 27-year-old. I was delighted to find the restaurant still existed and was doing well. My order was the same: two cuitlacoche quesadillas and a liquado de mamay. As I chewed away, I chatted with the cook and owner, Leticia.
“Where do you get the cuitlacoche?” I asked.
“A woman comes in from the village in the mornings and sells it over by La Escuelita,” Leticia said.
Oh. Interesting. Then the light bulb went off. Why not do a story on cuitlacoche? This is the kind of stuff most Americans aren’t familiar with and it’s certainly not available in Mexican restaurants over there or even along the border (at best it’s incredibly rare, or comes out of a can). If I can find the village woman and convince her to take me to the cornfields, I could really have something! NPR loves this kind of stuff! Hot dog!
This was the story I’d been searching for: non-drug-related, non-violent, simple, light, and cultural. Wonderful! I cooked up a plan with Leticia about meeting the next morning to find the cuitlacoche lady. But, as can be typical in Mexico, a “plan” rarely goes as planned.
I showed up the next morning at 8 am. Leticia was running late and turns out there was no cuitlaoche lady this morning. The next morning I called Leticia to ask if the lady had showed up before making the trip to the barrio again. Leticia never answered. So, what the hey, I risked another trip to Santo Domingo, and luckily this time I found the cuitlacoche lady. We made arrangements for me to go to the pueblo, or village, that Sunday accompanied by her husband and their Barbie loving daughter, Judy.
………to be continued