Sweet, sweet corn


Corn ears on white background
Originally uploaded by ONE.org

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.

"Pizza" kit
The Chef's "Pizza" kit

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?

28 thoughts on “Sweet, sweet corn

  1. The reason your grandmother insisted on doing the scraping was to be sure you got the best (arguably) part of the scraping process.. the MILK. Yes indeedy.

    Creamed corn, grilled corn, corn right off the cob (not even boiled), corn dripping in butter, corn chips which serve as a means to transport freshly made salsa to the mouth. …..OH! how I love corn and LOVED this post because now I better understand how you could see an entire field of the feed corn and state with conviction whether the crop was doing well (leaves were….um…downturned?) or in need of water (leaves were pointed straight up as if to catch whatever little bit Mother Nature had to offer.

    See? I was paying attention. NOw, pass the butter.

  2. Wow… that’s quite the childhood experience you had, Meg! I love sweet corn too (really, who doesn’t?), I don’t think I’ve ever had it same-day-as-it-was-picked, at least that I know. I’ve never understood the butter & salt approach, I prefer no butter and lots of pepper.

    1. Shhhh, Jack – don’t say that too loud. There is NO OTHER WAY to eat it besides butter and salt. But you go ahead and have fun with your pepper shaker, mkay?

  3. ummmmm yeah… we STILL do the yearly festivities @ this house… lololol… w/ 6 kids, it gets shucked pretty derned fast! lolol… I KNEW I had them for a reason! hee hee! I never shuck corn that I don’t think of you guys… Those WERE the days, weren’t they??? :) And I totally agree… You just can’t pick up corn and have it be GOOD corn, sistah… AMEN! PREACH IT! lol… I did, however, figure out a way to freeze it right on the cob, and although it’s not perfect, it’s pretty derned GREAT in the middle of winter, girl!

    1. Smerz, email me the freezing-on-the-cob directions! If it’s good enough for you, it’ll knock the socks offa my family!
      So, can you cut it as good as Grandma did? Betcha can’t. :-)

    1. Suz, is there a “season” for corn where you are? Produce is always best in-season… I have a friend who didn’t know you could “do that” with corn – meaning cut it off and freeze it – but you can, and you don’t even need to do it by the bushel!

  4. We had fresh “roasting ears” from just up the road this week, and they were unbelievably good.

    You did not mention trying to snatch the long strips of kernels from out of Grandma’s big white tub while she was cutting and scraping. That was MY favorite part.

    Awesome, awesome post. Made me smile. :)

  5. Doug and I freeze corn every summer now too. There are lots of stands around us that sell really great, fresh corn. We actually brought our Jersey corn to Thanksgiving last year. It was the first year we didn’t have corn grown on the farm at Thanksgiving. I don’t think anyone noticed! We haven’t frozen any yet but will probably do it this weekend or the next. Our corn is just now beginning to peak.

  6. Pass me another stick of butter. Same exact process in my family, 2 hours up the road. And my Grandma Yeagle was the exclusive cutter. She was A MACHINE. Awesome post, Soup!

  7. We grew up eating Nibblets outta the can …

    NOW I buy corn at the GreenMarket and nuke it .. rub it with butter and sprinkle it with salt … yummmmmmmm and forget about floss .. go get yourself some GUM Soft-Picks, you will thank me

    1. MPM – fried in a skillet? Tell me more!

      Bets – YES, the strips of corn – Grandma was good at cutting them off in one intact piece per pass!

      Sarah – I really should find some and do it this weekend. I’ll have time, and my MIL will be in town to help.

      Curt – Is it possible we’re, like, shirttail cousins or something? Because similarities like this are just somethin’ else…

      Daryl – you poor, poor child, I just can’t imagine! I also never knew it was OK to use dried potatoes until just a few years ago. It’s a farm thing. Yes, corn does turn out OK in the microwave – something else I never would have done until recently. Soft-Picks? Sign me up!

  8. Going to go shuck a few now! We like sucking our teeth awhile before flossing!

    Lime is good on corn too you know!

  9. I absolutely hate shucking corn but I’ll be the first one to grab a freshly shucked ear out of the shuckers hands and take a huge bite. And then run for the floss. *lol*

    This is one of my favorite things about summer. Fresh sweet corn.

    Maybe that’s what we’ll have for dinner. Corn.

    1. Audrey, yes, do have corn. It’s that time of year. Try to find some that’s local though! And don’t overcook it. Mooshy corn = YUK.

  10. Oh, the memories! I grew up in Minnesota and have fond memories helping my mom and grandma with canning and freezing corn. I’m now in Texas and I’m sorry – the corn we have here in the markets, even the farmers markets, doesn’t hold a candle to that from the corner fruit stands up North. Especially stands that had a field of sweet corn right behind them. Like the field across the street from a house we had rented early on in our marriage. One night, I let my wife talk me into going into that field to snitch a dozen ears. Of couse, we had to immediately eat the evidence of our transgression. I don’t know if it was because it was so fresh or the guilt, but that was absolutely the best, sweetest corn I have ever had in my life.

    1. Thanks Ken, for weighing in with more corn memories! You’re right, nothing beats northern corn. And not just because it kinda rhymes. A few weeks ago I actually asked a woman at a stand in Virginia when the corn was picked – she answered “Today” and I replied “Perfect!” Now I wish I’d bought more.

  11. When Dad was farming we’d eat fresh field corn. Not as sexxayy but still quite good. Hey, if it’s good enough for the cows, it’s probably too good for me (although I won’t eat the silage — I do have standards). GREAT POST!

    p.s. Working on a post (maybe two) about canning. Must be something in the air.

  12. I don’t freeze it anymore but we still eat lots from the local farm market. Oh, by the way your Uncle Bob lived next door to Chef Boyardee for a few years in Milton. Chef Boyardee bought Luther’s business, then he became General Manager for The Chef.

    1. I didn’t know Uncle Bob lived in Milton or that his dad was the Chef’s GM! I’ve been by that factory. The put out a good product, and I do still, from time to time, buy one of those pizza kits. My kids love the canned ravioli and – shhhh! – so do I.

  13. Oh, no disrespect at all! I was just saying that his “pizza” is different from the pizza you’d get at a restaurant, for example. But good in its own way!

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