The year of my thirteenth birthday I fell in love, with a vegetable. It was the summer of 1972 and driving across country with relatives to visit relatives wasn’t exactly a teenager’s idea of a dream summer vacation. The goal was a small town in Indiana primarily inhabited by farmers, and corn. Miles and miles of corn, (I was soon to learn not all corn is sweet corn, much is field corn). I am from the south, Tennessee to be exact and Tennesseans are no stranger to corn, but the farmers in Indiana were truly “corn people”. Like the Mayans and their descendants in Mexico the farmers I met in Indiana depended on this “grass” as a staple in their diet and as a livelihood. They lived and breathed corn, as part of their everyday survival. Arriving at the farm we were just in time for a home cooked mid day meal of, corn – boiled and buttered – along with green beans, new potatoes, corn bread and salad. Everyday for a week I ate corn. There were corn cakes, corn pone, corn bread, corn fritters and more corn- boiled and buttered. I was in corn heaven. The corn served was as sweet as candy and when bitten the juice from the kernels would trickle down my chin. Struck by the beauty and grace of this vegetable and its many uses, I was instantly head over heels in love with corn. I learned as much as I could from my Indiana farmer relatives about how to grow, harvest and cook sweet corn. Sweet corn is picky about its soil, preferring aged compost or manure that has had a chance to winter over and the soil temperature needs to be just right for planting, around 60 to 65 degrees. The seeds planted one inch deep in the rich soil are best sown in blocks of rows rather than long lines of rows so pollination can easily take place. Sweet corn is wind pollinated so for its male and female parts to get together and create all those juicy kernels on a cob it often needs some help. When the corn stalk is in “full tassel” and the tips of the ears have hairy tufts of silk showing, the pollination process has begun. When the grain of pollen falls on a sticky strand of silk it embeds itself and then forms a tube down to the waiting ovary and a corn kernel is born. If there is no wind the farmer has to help things along. That’s why sometimes a farmer or back yard gardener will be seen walking among the corn rows with a pie tin tapping the stalks to shake out the pollen, purposely catching some pollen in the pie tin to sprinkle on the stalks along the edges of the plantings. If the wind still fails to blow, this hand pollination will take place over a four or five day period. After the silk turns brown the farmer waits about two to three weeks and it’s time to harvest. Walking through the corn rows choosing the ears that are full they are pulled downward with a twist so as not to damage the ear. After harvest the corn needs to be kept cool as it will begin to lose sweetness as soon as it picked from the stalk. The sweet corn grown back then, on that small Indiana farm was hand planted and hand harvested like many of our own local sweet corn farmers still do to this day. Many small farmers grow plenty of sweet corn. Ignoring the low profit margin, they continue to grow it as a labor of love and an ode to tradition.
Grilled Corn with Jalapeño and Honey Butter
Emotive of childhood summers like mine, sweet corn is an epicurean experience that defines summer. When we eat corn all five senses are involved and memories are invoked. The sweet smell of the kernels and the muskiness of the husks, the soft silk, luxurious to the touch and the sounds of husking an ear of corn make us all “corn people”. Choose corn ears that are fully encased in their husks with the silk poking out at the top. Grown organically without pesticides there will be the occasional cut worm at the tip of the cob, don’t be concerned, just cut that off and feed it to the chickens or toss it in the compost pile. The rest of the cob is still in good shape. Sweet corn is best fresh off the cob, dropped into boiling water for about 3-5 minutes then slathered in butter. Spice up this traditional dish with a jalapeño and honey butter by mixing one stick of softened butter with one tablespoon of finely minced jalapeño pepper and one tablespoon of local honey. Set in the fridge to harden. Hard butter is easier to spread on a hot corn cob than soft butter is. For a healthier alternative to butter, pour ½ cup of olive oil into a bowl and add one teaspoon of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of freshly chopped cilantro, ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper and ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika. Freeze this mixture until it is solid then spread by the teaspoon full over a hot cob. Corn on the cob is great grilled and easy to do. Husk the corn reserving the husks that are free of silk. While waiting for the grill to get hot, soak the husks in warm water for about 15 minutes. Remove them from the water and sprinkle the inside of the husks with salt and pepper and lay on springs of fresh herbs like lemon thyme or sage. Cover the corn cob with these husks and twist the ends tightly until the cob is well sealed in husks once again. Place on the grill for about 10 minutes turning often. The husks will char, the corn will steam and the flavor will be intense. Serve with jalapeño honey butter, steamed green beans, boiled or baked potatoes and a summer fruit salad.