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Sweet Corn Memories

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Californian Corn

As an American family, we have always associated sweetcorn with ‘corn on the cob’, or ‘corn’. We did not know corn as ‘sweetcorn’ as it is commonly known in Britain. We grew up during the 60’s in Southern California. It was a time when most of the local land was still in arable use; land which was not growing oranges, would be growing corn. We’d enjoy watching the tender young corn plants growing. Corn was planted in spring and the common wisdom was that it should be knee-high by the 4th of July. Modern genetics and growing practices probably make this advice obsolete –what is certainly true, is that at the end of the summer mature corn will tower above a tall man’s head.

Our hometown cornfields would always sell some of their harvest in roadside shacks – we’d often stop in the car and buy a dozen freshly picked ears for dinner. The corn would be shucked, cooked simply, piled high and smothered with melted butter. We’d pierce our cobs with corncob skewers – or just grab them with our bare hands – and chomp away at the precious kernels.

In the valley of the green giant

In those days, corporate America was busy processing all kinds of food into convenience products: including corn. One company’s mascot, the ‘jolly green giant’, supervised the harvesting and processing of ‘his’ valley’s golden cobs into canned ‘niblets’. What a shame we would think, why would you eat corn from a tin when you can eat it fresh on the cob? Having had such an abundance of fresh corn on our doorstep, our family became rather fussy about corn: we’d scoff at tinned corn, we’d turn away at frozen corn; we’d thank the host, but decline the corn and tuna pasta salad; and if we ever saw corn on a pizza – well, that was just silly!

The lure of cornfields

Anybody unfamiliar with cornfields should go on a trip to a pick-your-own farm. There they can experience first-hand the strange wonder of being inside an actual cornfield. These days, we like to take our grandchildren to pick corn. Children are fascinated by the treaded-down paths and secluded dens and hideouts and they’re intrigued to learn how nature creates such amazing food. To a child, pick-your-own becomes a daytime version of trick-or-treat as they walk from plant to plant filling their bags with ‘harvested’ goodies.

For an adult there’s plenty to admire in a cornfield, but there’s also an eerie spookiness about corn; its height and density can be unsettling; the repetitiveness of the plants can be mesmerizing; and for the greenhorn seeking the perfect cob, the corn will goad and taunt the unwary picker deeper into the field. A combination of these factors might lead to a moment of panic, when a little-one suddenly slips from the hand and disappears into the green abyss.  As adults hurriedly shuffle up and down the endless furrows calling out the little-one’s name, the cornfield darkens into a mischievous labyrinth, conspiring to ensnare and hide its prey. It’s no wonder cornfields feature in so many horror films.

But, of course, the little-ones are safe and sound – and we head home with our bags full of bounty, just as we did in the old days… The corn would be shucked, cooked simply, piled high and smothered with melted butter. What better way to eat corn?




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