Sweet corn sweetens summer
By Ken Root
I’m living in corn country now where the fields reach for miles and the rains fall with enough regularity to keep them lush and green. It’s a far cry from the dry Oklahoma summers of 1950s but we grew corn there, too—sweet corn.
Sweet corn is one of the simple and wonderful gifts from God. It is just a soft ear on a stalk, but when prepared for the table it pops with flavor and transports all who partake to their childhood. Corn is as comforting a comfort food as you can find.
The challenge is to find the good stuff. It has to be fresh and it has to be sweet. It has to be cooked quickly so that the flavor is not lost. All of these elements have become a science to both growers and corn connoisseurs, like me.
I don’t put my energy into growing corn; I put mine into eating it. To find good corn, I walk the Saturday marketplaces to check for vendors with locally grown varieties that are bi-color (peaches and cream) or white. The vendors sit in the back of a pickup truck piled high with green husk ears. Their hands are calloused from the work of tending and picking the crop and maybe they have a fresh-faced teenage grandchild doing the selling with the master keeping the bins full. Farmers interacting with consumers—we should work on that more.
A farmers market grower tells me that the ears need to be firm and heavy for their size with a brown silk. There might be an ear worm right at the end but he hopes not. No need to shuck down your best ears when there’s one laying there to reveal the color and kernel size.
Right now a dozen ears of sweet corn sell from $2.50 to $3.50. Some places have so much that they put out “honesty boxes” so those who know where to come can just drop in their money and leave with the corn. This says a lot about the faith and trust of a farmer.
Corn should be eaten “immediately” if at all possible. The next meal is the latest that the corn should wait. My mother shucked off the husk and brushed out the silks as the water in a large pot was boiling. Upon reaching a full boil the corn should be plunged in. The question of how long to boil it is a matter of taste and tradition.
My son-in-law worked a farmers market all during high school. He prefers his sweet corn “raw,” and I’ll agree that he gets the most flavor and a unique texture. I have to have mine hot and to do so it needs to be under boil for two to three minutes. My mother boiled it for 10 minutes and that was way too long. I just didn’t know the difference until I got out on my own.
Corn should go on the table steaming hot. The butter should be close by every participant and the first thing after the prayer and napkin is to butter the corn. This is a skill in itself as there are many ways to do so.
Once the butter goes on, the salt follows. Some of this corn is very sweet and salt tends to contradict the taste, but most folks butter and salt corn before eating it.
Now we move to the best part, but just a warning: Never cut corn off the cob unless you’ve got ill-fitting dentures or to feed it to a baby. If you have real teeth, from one to 32, it’s showtime!
I prefer the Underwood typewriter approach. Hold the corn in both hands. Start at the left side and bite down, moving the corn to the left until you reach the other end. Then pull the corn back across and turn it upward about three rows of kernels and go again. Chew and swallow when needed and repeat until the cob is void. Again, there are variations on this theme but the same objective is accomplished.
By this time you should be near heaven. The corn should “pop” with a sweet, yet starchy texture and the butter should carry it to the back of your mouth where you have the option of bringing it around one more time for an encore or just letting it slide. There is no delicate way to eat sweet corn so don’t try. You can keep your clothes clean by tying a napkin around your neck or you can lean forward at about a 27 degree angle. Disposing of the cob should be on your own plate or the designated location but not back with the good corn that has yet to be eaten!
I don’t know how much corn I could eat if I really tried. At 16, I could do six ears without any problem. By my late 20s I could do 10. Now, I try to eat two but keep the option open for three. What’s your record?
Sometimes the simplest things are the best. An ear of immature corn bred for sweetness and texture, harvested in the midst of summer and boiled right out of the shuck. From farm boy to mature man, it just doesn’t get any better.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.