Patchwork: Summer rewards us with sweet corn days
Supper is suddenly very simple in our household: fresh tomatoes (with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh basil and a twist of black pepper) and hot sweet corn, dripping with butter and salt. Sure, you could quickly whip up coleslaw with carrots and purple cabbage now that the cabbages are mature, or a salad with newly minted arugula and other greens, or a cucumber salad with some sweet onion, a toss of dill and a sprinkle of vinegar, but why bother? For this brief two weeks, the sweet corn is just in (it tastes best the first week, don’t you think?) and tomatoes are at their peak. Why eat anything else?
My mother used to put the water on to boil before she sent us down to the garden to pick the corn. For days, we’d been on corn alert, watching the silk turn from flaccid yellow strands, to a dry brown tuft, and looking for signs the ears were plumping out beneath their coats of green husks. Ideally the kernels would be formed but still small and pebble-sized, and they would exude a sweet milky substance if punctured. My brother would sneak a nibble of the raw corn to see if really was ready.
There were competitors. My mother came in laughing one evening after she had been out. “I just saw five raccoons walking up Mountain Road tonight, holding hands and singing ‘Corn at the Gridleys.’ I guess they know it’s ready; we’d better eat it ourselves, tomorrow!” And so the water was put on to boil at 6 p.m. We ran to the garden to collect the ears, stripping the husks off as we came back up, so that the corn’s sugar would have no time to turn to starch.
In my husband John’s home, the ripening of sweet corn heralded a family workday: the annual corn-freezing day, with one mother in charge and five Barstow children, spaced two years apart in age, set at work stations. First thing in the morning, around 7:30, she drove the station wagon down to Novak’s Farm, where she had pre-ordered 150-200 ears of sweet corn to be picked that morning. Arriving home, she’d back the wagon up to the open garage doors, one child would swing the gate down and jump out of the way while the corn cascaded out.
All hands on deck. The result: a winter’s worth of frozen corn for baked corn pudding. First came the shucking out in the garage (remember, 150-200 ears), with John’s older brothers quietly spreading corn silk out in the sun to dry, to be crudely rolled in newspaper and smoked later that afternoon, the younger siblings pressed to try it so they could not rat on the older ones. Newly shucked ears were rushed into the kitchen and dropped into boiling water in the 3 or 4 kettles all going at once on the kitchen stove. After par-boiling for three to four minutes, each ear was lifted with tongs and plunged into one of the large metal picnic coolers that had been arrayed on the floor, filled with water and ice — to quickly stop the cooking and ready the ears for “scraping.” There were four scrapers, simple wooden devices with legs and little metal teeth and a blade over an opening through which the milky corn-ness would drop and collect in flat baking pans beneath (John figured Uncle Henry had invented these corn scrapers, since he made them and gave them to people for presents, but of course, when we married, I arrived with one from Wisconsin that my mother thought her grandmother had invented). Each scraping station sat on a side of the long breakfast table covered in newspaper. Corn kernels and juices splattered, the teeth puncturing each kernel as they pulled the ears across, the blade forcing the meat of each kernel out to drop into the pan below. This way, the corn pudding contained only the meat of the kernel, and no skins.
By mid afternoon, exhausted, sweaty and sticky with corn silk, corn kernels and corn juice, it was time to head to Toby Pond for a swim.
The days of rushing the corn from the garden into boiling water have changed. With genetic engineering, sweet corn now comes in three varieties. Think of the corn I ate as a child as the “standard” variety, moderately sweet, and full of flavor. You had to eat it as quickly as possible after picking, or the flavor changed (our favorite kinds were “Silver Queen” and “Butter and Sugar”). As I later learned, once picked, the sugars in the corn rapidly started converting to a starch, altering the flavor and texture. So food industry chemists set out to engineer a corn that would retain sweetness and tenderness longer, and they added a gene to it called “the sugar enhancer,” or “sugar extender.” This variety, two to three time sweeter than “standard” corn, stays sweet for about four days, if refrigerated. Though sweeter than “standard”, it has slightly less corn flavor, and the kernels are softer. The third variety contains a gene called “Shrunken-2” or “super-sweet,” and has four to 10 times the sugar content of “standard” corn. It stays sweet for up to 10 days if refrigerated. I find it doesn’t taste like corn at all; it is simply sweet.
But then, taste is personal. And so are attitudes about the availability of the things we enjoy. The poignancy of John’s and my childhood corn rituals — the waiting, the watching, the sharing, the tasting, the attempt to package that two-weeks-a-year taste sensation — is somehow lost with the thinning of corn’s true personality in favor of America’s penchant for sweet and the need to have everything available at any time of year, regardless of season, time in transport, cost of shipping, cost of production, and so on. I am happy to have the corn of my childhood two to three weeks a year, eating it fresh and fast, while freezing some for winter dishes. I don’t need it too sweet, or too often. Less was definitely more.