I never knew my Grandpa Howard to have a tooth in his mouth. He had dentures, somewhere, but never wore them, insisting they pinched and made him “look like a horse.” His voice was a honking sibilance and, along with his beaky nose, gave him more the presence of a large bird — wearing overalls — whose appearance was always oddly reassuring. In his later years, he took to the road — at least locally — my grandma giving him the nickname “Charles Kuralt,” venturing out and about in his green-and-white 1955 Buick, often ending up at our place just in time for a weekday noon dinner.
At mealtime, his lack of teeth gave me a good lesson in how food passions (and hunger) inspire the surmounting of any perceived obstacle. Grandpa was a voracious eater, who gum-chewed his way through everything from steak and chicken to crunchy vegetables (it was even rumored that he favored Grape-Nuts® for breakfast).
Fresh summer sweet corn was also high on his list of loves, and while I watched him intently, expecting our lunch guest to have trouble managing the steaming ears pulled from a boiling kettle, he solved the problem quite simply by clicking open his pocket knife, sawing the crisp, juicy kernels off the cob onto his plate, and shoveling forkfuls of their buttery sweetness directly into his mouth.
Good summer sweet corn can drive that kind of ardor knowing no bounds. My parents often grew it (or knew someone who did), and we all took part in the steady watch-and-wait of the corn’s progress over the spring and into the summer months, beginning with those first wispy green ribbon leaves that grew to towering stalks with golden tassels. In regular patrols, we wandered through the corn to determine the readiness of the ears that held hopeful mystery within their husks, not to be revealed until they were full and large, with tufts of fine silk turning rusty.
Once the husks were stripped back, odds were the cream to golden kernels would be tight, plump and juicy. On occasion, a happy corn worm was revealed, having nested and eaten a body-shaped tunnel along some of the ears. Hungry chickens received the corn and worm. The shucking was done in reverent silence, stripping back the squeaking green on a canner-full of ears of corn. If I was especially crafty, I would gather some of the leavings for my own apple doll projects later, carving windfall apples into weathered crones with corn silk hair and husk skirts.
It was never too hot in the kitchen to set another large canner to boil. First, popping the fresh whole corn-on-the-cob in for a quick blanching, then onto the plates to be slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The decimated cobs (more for the chickens) piled up as we munched away, faces shiny and slicked with yellow, including a few stray kernels. Some ears might not have ever touched the hot water, having been tasted straightaway, within the rows in the garden.
A test of good, sweet summer corn is that it can be eaten directly off the cob, uncooked, kernels bursting with sweet golden juice tasting buttery, unadorned with a single condiment.
I equate so much of the setting of summer itself with the setting of sweet corn. Corn will always top my summer vegetable list, and I’ll seek it out in the fresh produce stands and farmers markets, on the cob and fully husked. I take fresh ears of corn out to my compost bin to spend some silent, contemplative moments of recollection, stripping back husks, instinctively checking and almost hoping (briefly) to see a worm, but I don’t.
I never miss a chance to eat corn on the cob whole, with the butter dripping, just simple that way, no fancy seasonings or sprinkle of Parmesan needed.
But the fresh corn goes beyond the cob, too. Beginning early as a toddler who mixed her corn into everything (especially mashed potatoes), I joke that I would (if I could) put corn — and maybe lemon zest — in as many dishes as possible. I add it in my favorite salsa and salad recipes; feature it in a whole corn casserole topped with melted cheese; steep cobs for extra corn flavor in corn chowder; mix it into cornbread or muffins; or add it to a new favorite — sweet corn ice cream.
And when I do need fresh corn kernels off the cob, I dispense with using any of the fancy corn stripper implements or special methods out there. I stand the cob on one end on a plate, and using a simple sharp knife — like I remember someone doing as if it were second nature — I saw down the golden rows, the kernels spitting a little juice as they come free.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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