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The Sweetest Corn of All
I love American humor and one of my favorite forms is the tall- tale or exaggeration postcard, a spoofery wildly popular in the early 1900s, when photographers faked such anomalies as fur-bearing trout, jackalopes (jack rabbits with antelope antlers), and elephantine fruits and vegetables.
I have a card from 1909 that shows a farmer balancing himself on a single ear of corn so big it fills his horse-drawn wagon. The farmer is chopping off corn kernels with a pickax before he takes his saw to the cob. The legend reads, "How We Do Things at Wichita, Kansas."
In 1909 that card must have given the recipient, a Miss Hilda Gardner of Lincoln, Nebraska, a hearty laugh. Today it seems a prevision of what actually happened to corn in this country, a success story beyond the dreams of the American corn grower and corn eater, both of whom fantasized endless wagons of colossal corn. Shortly after this card was sent, Henry Wallace began to experiment with hybrids that would eventually fulfill fantasies of corn as high as an elephants eye and as sweet as Sweet Sue or Kandy Korn or any other of our recent supersweet hybrids.
Where hungry lovers of fresh corn were once limited to the green youth of indigenous corn types like dent and flint, bred for cornmeal and fodder, nowadays we can indulge all summer long our lust for corn thats been bred for sweetness and creaminess.
And where Labor Day once meant the end of the affair, now corn lovers can feast through fall and winter on hybrids engineered to retain sweetness during the one or two weeks shipping time to put them in our supermarkets.
Corn like strawberries is now a year-round crop, but only in August is corn, in most parts of America, at its sweetest and juiciest, when corn lovers in their madness attack wagonloads of tightly wrapped green-husked cobs and dive into lakes of butter.
With cornucopias of corn, now is the time to cut kernels from the cob and to squeeze out their milky insides so that they may lend their sweetening and thickening powers to companionate foods.
For the Zunis of the American Southwest, the ripening of new corn in the fields was an occasion for ceremony. They celebrated the return of the lost corn maidens in a ceremony they called the "Meeting of the Children," where the woman elected to be corn matron would address a few of the most perfect ears of corn newly plucked from their stalks, "My children, how be ye these many days?" and a group of women would answer in the voices of the new corn, "Happily, our old ones, happily." Corn is built into the myths and stories and lives of Amerindians in a way that makes any corn dish a sacred meal.
Even though they clung to their own wheat myths, European colonists learned from Amerindians how to use fresh corn as well as dried. They learned how to cut kernels to make succotash with new beans and how to grate green corn and add it to their own recipes for soups, puddings, fritters, and griddle cakes. For a couple of centuries, green corn was a traditional ingredient for thickening and flavoring a custard of milk and eggs to make a pudding or, if the eggs were separated, a souffle.
New Englanders added fresh corn to their seafood and potato chowders, or made chowders of corn alone. Even today no New England August is complete without a lobster and corn chowder , just as no clam bake is complete without fresh ears of corn.
In pursuit of fresh corn recipes, I came on The Corn Cook Book of 1918, labeled "War Edition" and designed to "Save the Wheat" for ourselves and our Allies by encouraging us to eat more corn. The author, Elizabeth O. Hiller, found some fifty-one ways to use green corn, as she calls it, in omelets, hashes, croquettes, timbales, fritters, waffles, cornmeal muffins, cakes, breads, and griddle cakes. While her pancake batter is fine as it is, I often add fresh blueberries to it as well. And why not? Everything complements corn. "Corn," Mrs. Hiller declares, "is the American Indians greatest gift to civilization" and local sweet corn fresh from the field is the greatest gift of an American summer.
Green Corn Griddle Cakes
yields 8 to 12 small cakes
1 cup half-and-half or buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups fresh corn kernels
In a blender or food processor, mix together until smooth all the ingredients but the corn kernels. Stir the kernels into the batter and ladle 1/4 cup at a time onto a greased hot griddle or skillet. Flip the cakes over with a spatula when their tops are puffed and their edges dry.
Note: To remove kernels from a cob, hold the cob vertically over a wide-mouthed shallow bowl. Cut the kernels straight down, top to bottom, with a sharp knife. Then with the dull side of the knife, scrape the cob down on all sides to get the "milk."
Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.