There’s a lot of grim news out there. But here’s some good news. Some very good news: it’s corn season again.
Summer has its trappings. Heat and humidity. Extended daylight. Swimming pools. Barbeques. Stop me before I descend even further into cliché. But one of the most poignant is corn’s arrival at farm markets.
One of the drawbacks of having grown up in a city, or maybe it was just my family, is that we were ignorant of the connection between the seasons and nature’s bounty. I was certainly aware of corn’s association with summer and rural America. I’d never seen the Midwest’s infinite oceans of corn but I’d read about them. Also, much of my education derived from Saturday morning cartoons and waving cornfields were as much a player in depictions of farm life as ducks or cows. And then there was that memorable lyric from “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” about “Corn as high an elephant’s eye.” As a kid it wasn’t hard to be awestruck from afar about endless fields of towering food-providing plants.
But by the time corn arrived at our table once or twice a year it was chewy and tasteless. It was hard to understand what the fuss was about even though it was fun to eat. And being city folk, or maybe just being effete, we didn’t eat it with our hands. It came with sterling silver prongs inserted on either end so that your hands wouldn’t get slimy with butter.
It was only after I started spending time upstate that I discovered that corn is one of the blessings of summer. Right up there with swimming in ponds and lakes, succulent tomatoes and watermelon.
I’d actually like to take a moment to discuss watermelon, almost, perhaps equally, as worthy of celebration as corn. When people think of their favorite fruits I suspect that watermelon isn’t as high on their list as a perfectly ripe peach or strawberries or raspberries. I’m not sure why that is. Other melons get more respect. Honeydews. Cantaloupes.
Perhaps it’s watermelon’s gauzy, delicate, gossamer, diaphanous consistency, its flashy red color and extreme sweetness. It tastes less fruit than a confection – somewhere between an ice pop and cotton candy. But when the thermometer approaches a hundred degrees and you’re looking for something to quench your thirst more interesting and interactive than water nothing comes close.
Also, watermelon’s huge size contributes to the experience. It creates a feeling of freedom and abundance. I’ll never forget the time in college I jumped into a swimming hole in Warren, VT. clutching a hunk of watermelon, and took a bite when I bobbed back to the surface.
OK, so maybe I haven’t had that adventurous a life. But the combination of a Vermont swimming hole, plunging from a substantial height, and celebrating one’s survival with a tasty chuck of watermelon suggested that joy was readily accessible to the common man. At least the common man who traveled with watermelon.
I have no such heroic stories associated with corn. For all its allure and uses I don’t think corn could be described as exciting. More curious. With all those tiny kernels in neat rows.
We buy ours at Samascott’s, a farm store in Kinderhook, NY. I’d argue that Samascott’s has the best corn around. But I think what makes it the best is that it’s picked fresh every morning. Krista Samascott, a member of the family that owns the store and surrounding orchards and obviously cornfields, estimated they sell approximately forty bags of corn a day, each bag containing four dozen ear of corn.
Allow me, or rather my phone calculator to do the math so you don’t have to. That’s almost two thousand ear of corn a day.
There’s some debate about the correct amount of time to boil corn. I’ve heard everything from not at all – simply eat it raw off the cob – to seven minutes. Krista says she cooks hers for between two and three minutes. She also cuts it raw off the cob and cooks it in the oven with roasted garlic and shallots.
But part of corn’s experience is that it’s also capable of producing heartbreak. One ear from the same batch may taste different and better than another – sweeter, crispier, with neater rows of kernels. I’m always so eager for corn season to start that I jump the gun. The first couple of times we bought it this month was at a farm stand that imported it all the way from New Jersey. But the dried out appearance of its leaves suggested it would disappoint and it did. Samascott’s on the other hand is still wet and slippery with dew.
I’m agnostic about whether yellow corn, yellow and white, or white is better. They all taste great to me. It’s more the luck of what ear you draw. I’m also not above peeling back the leaves and silk before I buy it to make sure a worm hasn’t gotten there first. I do so with only minor guilt. If it’s healthy I’ll buy. If it’s compromised no else should have to either.
You almost need some early season disappointment to build anticipation for the real, local item. And you know when you find it. Your tastebuds tell you. The only thing better than the combination of fresh corn with small, pearly kernels slathered in butter and salt outdoors on a summer night with the crickets chirping and the fireflies blinking on and off is the knowledge that we’re just at the start of corn season. It continues into September and, weather permitting, even October.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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