People act so crazy around corn. →
[More:]It happens every summer. You head into the grocery aisle only to encounter a mad crush of people frantically scrabbling around a large wooden bin. What are they doing? They are selecting corn on the cob for purchase.
People act really weird about their corn. They have a degree of obsessiveness about it that does not extend to other vegetables. Many people feel the need to pull back a section of each husk to examine the kernels at the top of the cob. Something about this seems to satisfy them. Sometimes they reject some corn, tossing it back into the bin all disheveled and half-unbuttoned like a teenage girl after a basement makeout session. Sometimes all the corn meets with their approval.
The funny thing about this is that it's ritualistic. People are very excited about the corn being on the cob, in such a natural state, and all. It seems that they want to respond with some degree of familiarity or corn connoisseurship. But it's mostly unnecessary. You really can't tell much about corn by peeking under its petticoat layers at a couple of kernels that you can't tell by the overall external appearance of the corn.
I worked for many years at a summer camp, and we had fresh Jersey corn about once a week. This meant that each week, one of the crews of 8 or so kids got assigned the KP task of shucking 150 ears of corn to get ready for the meal. This taught me a lot about corn. It taught me that if the cob is still tightly wrapped and the silk looks healthy and not too dry, you have a good ear. Even some really good ears have puny looking kernels at the top that are not completely developed; in fact, if they are all large and completely developed, the corn may have been picked too late. Some absolutely beautiful ears can harbor some terribly frightening-looking larval forms of something or other
. And some really scrappy-looking ears can contain lovely fresh corn.
What is it that makes people want to visually inspect each and every ear by peeling back the husk, even though it doesn't improve your chances of getting a completely smut-, bug-, and puny-kernel-free ear?
And at this point in our season, we don't even have any native corn. Whatever corn is in the markets is coming from the south or west of us, and has probably been on the road for a few days anyway, so it's already past its peak anyhow. It's not like you're going to find the one super-fresh ear
among the 300 on the pallet. The ears are all from the same giant farm and they're all about the same age. I think you can pretty much tell without tearing the corn apart whether it's reasonably edible or not. If the cut end's brown, if the silk is shrivelled and dry, if the leaves are loose and torn and shrunken, skip it. Otherwise, the corn is probably as good as you're going to get that day. Buying corn at the grocery store is already an act of compromise: there is so much difference between fresh corn picked recently and corn that's been stored that they are worth thinking of as different vegetables.
The best corn I ever tasted was from ears we ate without cooking, already heated by the sun, while standing right in a New Jersey farmer's field that bordered on our camp, illictly yanked from the stalk on a hike. It was sweet and juicy as fruit, kernels popping in our mouths with their own succulent release of energy. Second best was corn almost that fresh from the stand down the road, boiled or grilled quickly so the crunch didn't die, served with butter and salt and pepper. But it doesn't stay that good that long. The same corn even the next day, and the day after that is different, as the sugars convert to starch and the kernels dehydrate.
But beyond questions of quality, there's something just really festive and ritualistic about shopper's relationship with corn. I mean, people don't stick their fingernails into apples to see if they're mealy, or tear back an orange peel to see whether the sections are fully developed.
Perhaps because it's one of the last few veggies that the consumer has to process, a little, it makes people feel closer to the land and makes them want to feel farmer-like. Perhaps because the corn is still secreted in its husk, because it retains an element of natural mystery, because you are about to see something no one but God could ever have seen, that people engage in the dramatic ritual performance of the grocery-store corn-stripping.
That's all I have to say about corn today.