News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 25, 2010

The Off Season: ’Tis so sweet to taste this summer’s corn

By Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — There is an old riddle that goes something like this: You throw away the outside and cook the inside. Then you eat the outside and throw away the inside. What did you eat?

If you answered an ear of corn, it might be because you’re pretty sharp, or because, like me, you have corn on the cob on the brain right now. Midsummer is when sweet corn is a hot-ticket item in these parts, and I will admit that I will be first in line to get it.

I just spent a little while shucking our Sunday lunch. Standing on the precipice that serves as my back yard, I worked my way through a dozen ears or so, knowing that a pot of bubbling water was waiting for me atop the glowing rings of our electric stove.

I am a corn man. I’m not opposed to carrots or broccoli or cauliflower or green beans at all — as long as the first three in that bunch aren’t cooked — but I have a special affinity for sweet corn, and this year’s crop has only fueled my addiction.

My friend, Joe, who wears the sawdust of his workshop and the chafe of his hayfields on his arms, serves as dealer for my sweet corn fixes; he delivers the goods in used, plastic grocery bags.

Joe grows his corn in patches all around his farm, planting it in the spring at various intervals, then pulling it as it ripens so that we can enjoy the stuff for most of July and a while into August. Year after year, he plants the same white-and-yellow variety that not only produces moderately large ears, but also the sweetest corn this side of the sugar bowl.

Like most Hoosiers, I suppose, my family enjoys sweet corn with a generous slathering of butter and a sprinkling of salt. I like mine with more than a little pepper, and I’ve been known to keep spooning the plate’s accumulated mixture of melted butter, salt, and pepper back over the ears as I devour them, not for the sake of miserliness, but because sweet corn isn’t sweet corn unless the consumer also wears a little of it on his chin, too.

It is my understanding that sweet corn has to be eaten fresh for one basic reason: The longer it remains on the shelf after being picked, the sugar in it begins to turn to starch. A few minutes invested in reading a pamphlet from the Purdue University Horticulture Department made me enough of a sweet corn expert to be able to tell you that 50 percent of the corn’s taste and sweetness is lost within 12 hours after harvesting. If it has to be refrigerated between the field and your supper plate, you need to keep it as close to 32 degrees as you can.

Sweet corn season was anticipated with great excitement in my childhood home, just as it was in my wife’s. When the corn was ready to be picked — my grandfather, who planted and cultivated it — came down from his hillside garden like an agrarian prophet to tell my mom and my aunt (she lived across the road) that they’d better be ready for a shucking party. On the appointed day, they and my grandmother, Blanche, would meet in the latter’s kitchen to begin blanching the corn, cooling it, then quickly cutting it off the ears, making it ready for the freezer.

Canning was a very big deal in those days; similar scenes could be found when the green beans came on, when tomatoes were going full bore, when the carrots were pulled, and when my grandpa dug potatoes. Much of our life revolved around his garden, and when he said things were ready to be picked or dug or shucked, we got busy. Three family’s basements were lined with canned produce, and I can still smell the scent of the onions and “taters,” and the glint of a bare light bulb on the hundreds of green glass Ball jars that lined my grandmother’s cellar. The sound of a rattling pressure cooker valve still rings in my head, and I can still see those three ladies all sitting in a semi-circle in the yard snapping beans and swapping stories and laughing through their labor.

I became a businessman at an early age, selling the surplus produce at a make-shift County Line roadside stand. Mostly consisting of a battered card table and chair, and a hard-to-read sign, I often sat at my sales kiosk for hours at the base of our hillside driveway reading books, counting cars and talking with people who pulled in on their way home from work to pick up part of their supper. “Give ’em a baker’s dozen on that corn,” my grandfather, Roy, always told me. “Some of the ears are a little small, and we want ’em to come back,” he’d add. For our customers that meant 13 ears for $1.

Our tomatoes and peppers and potatoes sold well enough, but the sweet corn sold best, which was just fine with me; I helped my grandfather till his sandy brown soil, plant the seed corn, and hoe the young plants every spring, and I was always the Director of Finance, too. That is, I carefully watched the money from our sales as it built up in our peeling red Roi-Tan cigar box.

I can’t say I miss the scratchiness of dew-soaked leaves on my arms while I picked my grandfather’s corn; I miss those times and those people, though. Eating sweet corn takes me back to those days a bit, as does the lack of conversation around our dinner table as each of us pauses to work our way down an ear like a beaver on a maple tree.

Our house is filling up tonight; my daughter is here, as is my son and his girl. My wife has been prepping garlic bread and cooking spaghetti sauce and making a dessert. We’re going to eat well, as usual.

“I suppose you’ll want some corn, too,” she says as she peers around the corner of the kitchen door into my office.

“Yeah, I want corn, too.”

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or via regular mail C/O the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit Mike’s webpage at www.mikelunsford.com. He’ll be speaking and signing books for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Westminster Village in Terre Haute and at 6:30 p.m. CST Aug. 12 at the Marshall, Ill., Public Library.