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19 July 2008

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.
I loved reading this, Miko.

Around here, we go wild for our Zellwood, FL corn. Our grocery stores have a garbage can next to the corn where you can husk your corn right in the store. I think our corn season is pretty much over.

I just learned that you should look for corn with smaller kernels. I think it was a chef on TV. Is this true? I never knew this.

Your working with corn reminded me of the years I made fresh-squeezed lemonade for a living. You get to know a lemon very well. I know that a lemon without pores and a thinner skin will be the juiciest.

Your story also reminded me of a comedy movie where one character makes the family dinner and the corn on the cob is raw when everyone assumed it would be cooked. I can't remember the title for the life of me.
posted by LoriFLA 19 July | 19:03
Corn earworms, my friends, are something I'd rather leave in the store and not take home. A quick inspection reveals them or not.
posted by plinth 19 July | 19:04
Like LoriFLA, I really enjoyed reading this. And like plinth, I do not like worms. So I peek at the tip to make sure there isn't a little bonus in there waiting to make me shriek hours later in my kitchen.

Maybe people get all picky with their corn because it's one of the few vegetables and fruits that is really seasonal. Like sweet cherries .. corn is here for a couple of months and then it's either frozen or canned, and a totally different experience.

You have a great way of writing about ordinary things that evokes such vivid imagery. Thanks for the mini-essay!
posted by Kangaroo 19 July | 19:20
A quick inspection reveals them or not.

Only the thing is, it doesn't always reveal them - I've found them in plenty of ears very far from the tip. I think it's kind of a confirmation bias thing. They're rare enough, and if you don't find them in your corn, you think it's 'cause you've checked. But most of the time there just weren't any in the corn (especially now that sweet corn from the big farms is all GMO'd up and worm-resistant). And the checking doesn't provide 100% insurance, since when I've found them among our 150 weekly ears, they were often in midcob where a quick inspection of the tip wouldn't have revealed them anyhow. I guess inspecting might rule out the cobs where the worm is right at the top, but you can still be surprised! Beware!

Thanks for the nice comments. I think you're right, kangaroo; the seasonality is special in a world where we can pretty much get just about anything we want any time. That's one of the things about it that makes me smile. I guess thumping watermelons is sort of similar.

LoriFLA - thanks for the lemon tip!
posted by Miko 19 July | 19:42
You really can't tell much about corn by peeking under its petticoat layers

I like to look just to make sure the last quarter has ripe kernels and not those little dried up ones.

But I've pretty much given up on grocery store corn. They never seem to get the good local stuff at any time of the year. So if I want corn I stop at some roadside stand. It'a a bother though, so I do it a lot less than I used to. This year my driving is so curtailed that I wonder if I'll end up getting any at all.
posted by DarkForest 19 July | 20:22
I don't know how much BT the local farms use, but the people working the stands often preflight the ears, but you still might pick a winner.
posted by plinth 19 July | 20:58
Yeah, the more I've been involved with Slow Food, the more depressing grocery stores look. Even when stuff is locally available in season, the stores often can't buy it because they have supplier contracts with large distributors and they can't suddenly stop buying from them just to buy from a local for 3 weeks out of the year. So the grocery has this dead, boring but consistent produce, meanwhile your local people have great stuff - but only when it's in season.

I need to learn more about this - but it's not just the Bt-proof corn that's out there, it's also various varieties, many hybrid but some open-pollinated, of standard, enhanced, and "Supersweet". I'd like to learn more about what gets planted here and elsewhere and what some of the differences are. Look, so many! So I guess to get the peak natural corn flavor as really super-fresh corn, you have to have an "Su" variety within a day of picking. Next best would be an "Se" variety and last would be the "Sh2," which I guess is probably what they sell as frozen on the cob in the grocery store.
posted by Miko 19 July | 21:51
I too have shucked a mind-blowing amount of corn in my lifetime: worms that have burrowed through the husk leave telltale holes that are easy to find, but worms that have entered through the end of the stalk leave no evidence. I always check the ears.
posted by eamondaly 19 July | 22:07
BUt do you guys take the whole husk off when checking?
posted by Miko 19 July | 22:19
I've probably told this story before here, but, oh well, what the hell. Years ago, when my son was like four or so, he was helping me husk corn in the kitchen. The ear I was husking had a great big green caterpillar in it. "OH!" I said, surprised, "Look, a caterpillar came along with the corn!" And my entrepreneur son, thrilled, looked over and said, "For FREE?"
posted by mygothlaundry 19 July | 22:22
Funny how now that I live in the Midwest, land of corn, I feel like I never get good corn anymore. When I grew up outside of Buffalo, my suburb was rural enough to have great roadside farmer stands with amazing sweet corn. I'm hoping things will change this year now that I get this CSA-esque veggie delivery service. I'm looking forward to corn season.

My friend bought popcorn-on-the-cob at a farmer's market the other day. Popcorn. On the cob. You just stick the whole cob in your microwave to pop it. The farmer said if you want, you can put it in a paper bag so as to not end up with popcorn all over your microwave. How cool is that?!
posted by misskaz 19 July | 22:38
Bt, Bt-Proof, often preflight the ears...

You guys might have to explain these to me. I know Bt as bacillus turingensis, a bacterial pesticide. Didn't they splice that gene into some crops like corn a few years back? Is it in all corn nowadays?

I never thought that the supersweet corn tasted as good as the older, normal-sweet varieties, the stuff we got in the 60s and 70s. I should really set up a raccoon-proof garden area and grow my own from some older varieties. At least enough for a few meals worth each year.

But yeah - grocery store industrial food - pretty depressing in terms of taste.
posted by DarkForest 19 July | 23:01
Heh. Miko, your post brought to mind my first real summer job (i.e. not working as my dad's assistant) -- corn de-tasseling for Libby's, which used to control several farms around here (even though the county is mostly known for dairy). It was a lot of people's first job here!

Anyway, I nearly got heat stroke and died. Er, of boredom. After the first week I got work in a car component factory. The next summer, I worked as a data entry operator ...

In any case, we always have a nice corn roast or three at first harvest, and I can't wait. My only regret is that with my current dental it's hard to eat right off the cob. Nothing like boiled and roasted corn that was picked fresh that very afternoon.
posted by stilicho 20 July | 00:17
I pull back a huge section of the husk and look at the corn. Here in Alaska we don't get fresh produce unless it's from your own garden, and I don't know of anyone growing corn. (The best part of traveling Outside is the produce: fruit that smells and tastes like you think it should, tomatoes that haven't been blasted with chemicals to make them look red, and the avocados. Oh my God, the avocados.)

The corn that we get up here isn't the freshest or the healthiest. All of the husks are somewhat loose, all of the silky ends are brown and sad. I husk one section nearly to the bottom to make sure the kernels are healthy.
posted by rhapsodie 20 July | 01:15
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