A Story of Corn and Friendship
If there is one quintessentially American vegetable it would be sweet corn. The French—who eat everything with a knife and fork (including McDonald’s hamburgers)—would scoff at the idea of picking up an ear of corn with two hands and gnawing at it like some old groundhog. (But it would be fun to watch a Frenchman do it!) I’m a Francophile at heart—and have even taken up the practice of eating my hamburger with a knife and fork (egads)—but corn is where we part company.
I love corn and I come from a long line of corn lovers. Born and raised in the Midwest, how could I not be? I can remember driving along the country roads of eastern Ohio with my grandfather who would point out the difference between field corn and sweet corn as we drove. “You see that corn growing by the side of the road?” he would ask. “That’s sweet corn. It’s shorter than field corn and the tassels are finer.” Then we would pass some field corn and he’d start to quiz me. I got those lessons every time we visited when the corn was in tassel.
For most of us Americans, sweet corn is one of the pleasures of summer. It is something we anticipate eagerly once the weather starts to warm up. It is also something that spawns heated debates among the corn-loving set. If you are a true corn connoisseur, you have an opinion about everything corn: preferred variety, how to cook it, how long to cook it and whether this season’s crop is as good as last year’s.
My maternal grandfather grew sweet corn in his vegetable garden. He grew tomatoes and beans and cucumbers as well. My grandmother was a superb country cook and I looked forward to eating her food whenever we visited. In the summer, she’d make sides of creamed green beans, sliced cucumbers and spring onions dressed with apple cider vinegar, thickly sliced beefsteak tomatoes with salt, and, of course, corn. It was so fresh and such a welcome departure from my mother’s frozen vegetables and tossed salads made with iceberg lettuce and hard, store-bought tomatoes. It always seemed so strange to me that my mother, having grown up eating fresh vegetables, eschewed them in her own kitchen.
Still, when it came to corn, even my mother bought it fresh. In the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up we lived far enough from the city that there were still a few small farms here and there. We bought our corn at Ethel’s farm stand (Ethel no doubt being the farmer’s wife). When the corn started coming in, my sisters and I would pile into the car and we’d drive out to Ethel’s for the corn we would eat that night.
When we got home, my mother would put the water on to boil and we’d all go out to the patio and shuck the corn. Sometimes one of us would leave too much silk on the corn and our mother would tell us to do it over. In my memory, it seemed like the whole family got into the act, making corn on the cob something of an event at our house.
The act of eating the corn was its own event. The bowl of steaming ears plucked from the boiling water would arrive at the table and we’d all start grabbing and shouting about how many ears of corn we were planning to eat. And then there would be a mad dash for the butter. (You can’t eat corn without butter and it is best to slather it on while it is still piping hot.) We couldn’t pass the butter fast enough. Or the salt. Butter and salt and corn. Whatever else my mother served along with it was beside the point.
By the time dinner was over, there was little left other than the denuded corn cobs piled up in the serving bowl and a wad of greasy napkins thrown helter-skelter on the table.
Once I moved to New York in my twenties, eating corn in the summer was more problematic. I knew enough about corn to know that the corn you buy in the grocery store or corner market was probably picked days ago. As soon as that corn is picked, the sugars start to break down into starch and after a few days the crunchy sweetness has already given way to something chewy and dull. No self-respecting corn lover is going to eat that corn. I had moved to a corn desert.
Fortunately, I had a friend who hailed from upstate New York and every summer in those early years, a small group of us would make a pilgrimage to her childhood home. Even more fortunately, her mother served us corn.
Ostensibly we made those annual trips to take in a performance of the New York City Ballet at their summer residence in Saratoga Springs, but in truth I suspect we were all looking for a respite from the demands of the city and our nascent adulthood. It was nice to be taken care of by someone’s mother.
Like everything else at that time in my life, my friendship with Lauren was new and evolving. We met through a mutual friend and we had an instant rapport. In the beginning we were bound by our common interest in ballet, our parallel experiences as year abroad students in France and our emerging careers in finance. We took ballet classes together and shared a season’s subscription to the New York City Ballet. I became part of her extended group of friends who had all known each other since high school. I marveled that they had all ended up in the city together and had such a rich history. I felt fortunate to be included.
Those trips upstate were one of the highlights of my summers. There were times when we rented a car and drove, but in the earliest days, we took the Amtrak train from Grand Central to Albany along the Hudson. The tracks hug the river just about all the way up to Albany with breathtaking views of unspoiled escarpments that run along the western side and charming little towns that dot the eastern side. The train ride alone made the trip seem like a big adventure.
We had such fun on those trips. Not only did we go to see a ballet performance, but we often took a day to go to the spas at Saratoga Springs. Back in the 1980s the spas were run by the parks department and they were anything but trendy. They were from another time and badly in need of repair, but we went anyway just for the experience of sitting in a tub of smelly, hot spring water. It was part of our ritual.
In the evenings (if we didn’t go to a ballet performance) we played games around the kitchen table with Lauren’s mom. Boggle and Uno were among our favorites and we played and laughed well into the night. It was fiercely competitive.
On one of my first visits upstate, Lauren’s mom served us fresh corn on the cob for dinner. My corn-loving foundation must have really kicked in. Before you knew it, we got caught up in a debate about whether that year’s corn was as good as the prior year’s, how best to cook it and for how long. I wanted to start an annual video series and call it The Corn Chronicles, which would feature all of us each year opining on the corn.
What made it all so memorable was that Lauren refused to eat any corn at all. We cajoled and teased and practically begged her to take a bite of corn but she would have none of it. Who doesn’t like corn, I wondered. I think I became almost indignant.
There is always a moment when you are first beginning to know someone when you discover that your tastes or values are not completely aligned. It feels jarring at first and—depending on the gravity of the subject—there is a fleeting moment when you wonder if the relationship will go on.
Honestly, I cannot tell you to this day why Lauren doesn’t like corn. She has no doubt told me numerous times, but it hasn’t stuck. It is unfathomable to me that someone would not like corn and so it is better just to tune her out. We both love foie gras and truffles and so I will forgive her for not being a corn enthusiast.
Besides, I won her over on tomatoes when I brought her a beautiful, red, ripe beefsteak from my grandfather’s garden one summer. Like corn, up until then she refused to eat them. But on the strength of a true tomato, grown with love, she has eaten tomatoes ever since.
Of course, over the years our friendship moved past ballet and annual trips upstate New York. And discussions about corn. I was there for her when she had to be hospitalized while pregnant with her second child. I visited her nearly every day for three months, bringing her food from the outside to break up the monotony of institutional cuisine. I was there for her when she got her divorce, patiently talking with her by phone nearly every day in the early stages.
And when my husband and I managed to have our wedding celebration on the night of the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, Lauren was there for me. She drove in to the city from Larchmont because the trains weren’t running and didn’t let a few scary intersections with no traffic lights deter her. She told me nothing was going to stop her from celebrating with us.
Only forty guests out of one hundred made it to our celebration that Thursday night of the blackout in 2003. And Lauren was one of them. She was the only guest who came who was not already in the city at the time of the blackout. She won the prize for most intrepid traveler that night and her effort touched me deeply.
I’m not going to let corn come between us.
Now I live in the Mid-Atlantic in a house that is a mere mile or so from a farmer whose bi-color corn is known far and wide as being the best in the area. My love of corn has grown accordingly.
I may have married a man who only tolerates corn, but his mother is a corn-lover to her bones. Before my in-laws commit to visiting us during the summer, they ask if the corn is abundant and good. We eat it every night of their stay (with plenty of butter). When they are ready to drive back, they stop off at the farm stand as soon as it opens and pack up as much as twelve dozen ears to take back with them so my mother-in-law can cook and freeze them. That’s true corn devotion in my book.
When I met Lauren, I was a solid corn enthusiast, but now I’m a corn snob. If my local farmer has a gap in his harvest and trucks in other local corn to take its place I go without. I tried the Jersey corn he substituted one year and was so disappointed that when there was a sign out last week that read ‘local corn’ I walked away empty-handed and then proceeded to do a slow drive-by for the next couple days on my way to someplace else to read whose corn was on offer. I felt like a veritable burglar out casing the joint.
And yes, I still partake in the annual ritual of rendering a verdict on the quality of the first corn. I don’t record it, of course, but in my heart I am still true to the Corn Chronicles. When it is a particularly good year (like this one) I often wish Lauren were with us. Maybe then I could convince her to try some and finally convert her into a bona fide corn-loving American.
But as with the French, I can still like her even if she doesn’t care for corn. We aren’t parting company.
How I Cook My corn
Keep the time from when you buy your freshly picked corn to when you cook it to a minimum. Later in the season when the corn is being picked twice a day, I wait until late afternoon to run down to my farm stand to buy corn for dinner that evening.
My preferred method is to steam the ears for 2-3 minutes and no more. If I am cooking for more than four, I cook the corn in a large pot of boiling, salted water for the same amount of time. Corn that is cooked longer is just mush.
Make sure you have plenty of softened butter and salt on hand for serving!