Oh, dear friends, this photo makes my mouth water. It also makes me want to double-check my stock of dental floss. Because, seriously, is there anything sweeter in the summer than fresh sweet corn, pulled off the stalk and immediatly placed into boiling water, only briefly, just long enough so that its heat instantly melts real dairy butter so that coarsely-flake salt will adhere?
I think not.
It’s the height of sweet corn season here in the Mid-Atlantic. At this time of year, I admit, I become a bit haughty, more than a little persnickety. I wrinkle my nose at the already-shucked, ears of corn whose ends are trimmed so the ears fit neatly onto the green styrofoam tray, all the better to shrinkwrap and label. I am the person who will ask, “when were these picked?”, knowing that the ONLY acceptable answer is TODAY. Anything else is just too… yesterday’s news. I positively scoff at the ears that start showing up in grocery stores as early as May. Where must they have been grown, and how long were they on the truck, and what, prey tell, are they doing in Maryland?
This time of year prompts fond memories of growing up on the farm. My dad farmed hundreds of acres of grains, including corn for feed and seed, but in the field right across the road from the house, he would always plant more than a few rows of sweet corn. You know – the kind that humans eat. When the first ears were finally ready to be picked, usually during early August, we’d enlist relatives and neighbors for a big day of pulling and carting and shucking and blanching and cutting and packaging, so that come winter, we’d have a freezer stocked full of corn that tasted like a bite right outta summer.
Everyone had a job. Teenagers were instructed to don long-sleeved shirts and douse themselves in bug spray, and warned of how itchy the leaves of the cornstalks were. They were taught how to tell when an ear was ready to be picked. They’d load the ears into Radio Flyer wagons and wheelbarrows and tote them across the road to the porch, where another crew would busy themselves with shucking the ears. We called it “husking.” There is a method to husking/shucking, and if you do it right, you can do it in about three pulls, leaving only minimal silk on the ear.
After shucking, the ears would be toted into the kitchen, where our giant canning kettles were on the stove, simmering with boiling water. I always found it ironic that the height of summer’s heat and humidity was the only time we were forced to engage in an activity that resulted in excessive heat and humidity in our non-air-conditioned kitchen. Because that’s when the corn was ready. Not in December. AUGUST.
My mother would transfer the steaming-hot blanched ears to the other side of the kitchen, where our double sinks were full of icy cold water. We would run the ears through one cool bath, then transfer them to the other sink for a second bath. At this point, all workers in the kitchen had to be restrained from jumping into the cool sink baths. Furthermore, whoever was in charge of said baths could no longer feel their hands, which were numb. Which was in stark contrast to the sweat dripping down their back.
The goal was an ear that could be handled by She Who Cuts The Ears: Grandma Losch. My mother’s mother was the only one who was allowed to cut the corn off of the ears. No one else could do it to her satisfaction; none could touch her efficiency. She’d sit at the kitchen table, a giant tub balanced between the table and her ample lap, sharpened knife in her right hand, and denude each ear with laserlike precision. There was a rhythm to her cutting: She’d run the knife up each of the rows, usually in four or five passes, then scrape it in the opposite direction to get every bit of sweet corny goodness.
I always wanted to cut. I was always denied. But oh, how I watched.
After grandma’s tub was full, someone else would take it and fill little freezer bags with the sweet, sticky kernels using a measuring cup, twist-tie them shut (kids, this was in the days before Ziploc bags), then place each bag into a wax-coated box designed for preventing freezer burn. Lastly, someone would write the year on the box, then down into our basement and into one of our deep freezers the boxes would go.
It was hard work, but everyone who helped left with corn. And the best part? Was that we’d eat corn for lunch. Sweet, juicy ears of corn, that had been pulled from their stalk only five minutes before and plunged into boiling water, a whole stick of butter dedicated to having steaming hot ears rolled on it, causing the top to become concave from the heat and pressure. The butter and salt would drip down our chins. The corn would stick between our teeth.
We would floss.
Then, the mid-day meal over, we’d get back to it. Usually the picking happened early, first-thing in the morning, before the heat and the gnats got too bad. The hot kitchen jobs were the last to wrap up. It was a full-day affair, and tiring. But come January, as we were putting pats of butter on our pile of corn kernels, which was sitting next to our mashed potatoes and roast chicken, we’d remember that hot August day and smile.
So, now you know why I had no idea corn came in cans until after college. You also know why I refuse to buy the Niblet ears in my grocer’s freezer case. BAH! Oh, if I need a fix I’ll break down and buy brand-name frozen cut sweet corn. It’s an acceptable substitute, much in the same way you can call that Chef Boyardee pizza kit a “pizza.” And I’ll buy it from farmer’s markets around here, and even in the grocery store when they bring in huge boxes of it (but not before I peel back the husk and stick a thumbnail into a kernel to assess its tenderness).
But to me, nothing compares to fresh-picked, fresh-cooked sweet corn.
Now please – be a dear and pass me the floss, would you?