The sweet corn of summer has arrived. At last. We planted ours on the late side this year, deterred by the cool rainy runout of winter. For several weeks now, I’ve been impatiently walking between our rows of corn stalks, feeling the ears, trying to resist the temptation to pull back a little of the husk to see how the corn kernels are developing. I’ve been saying to Peter, “Do you think we can start harvesting the corn?,” and he has been answering, to my frustration, “No, I don’t think they’re quite ready yet.” He pointed out that there had been no raccoon incursions yet; they tend to show up whenever the corn is ready.
Last weekend, I insisted I had found a couple of ears that I thought were ready, and Peter reluctantly gave me the go-ahead to try them. We grilled them in their husks for dinner. The kernels were sweet, but very, very small, and because I had not let the coals get hot enough before dumping them in the grill, and we had to reserve the hottest coals for the steaks we were having, it was more like eating the corn raw. The butter didn’t readily melt on the cobs as a result. I like it raw; it was good, but not the exciting burst of the sugar rush that the first corn of summer normally evokes to just stop me in my tracks. Peter politely refrained from saying “I told you so.”
This week, I am quite sure, is the moment that will stop us in our tracks. The kernels of our first wave of corn will be big enough to almost bite off the cob one at a time, and at their peak of sweetness. And no wonder, as in some way they are at that point the essence of potentiality, like one of those extremely dense clouds of gasses that concentrate at the birth of a star.
I had not realized until recently, that corn stalks are really a silent orgy going on right under our noses. The flowering tassel you see at the top of the corn stalk is, in fact, the plant’s male sex organ. These “flowers” produce pollen grains in great numbers, each of which is a male sex cell. Their destination, as is the typical wont of male sex cells, is to fertilize the eggs that are found along the cob.
The ears, which develop at leaf nodes along the stalk, are in essence the female sexual organs of the corn plant. Along the cob, inside the ear, are eggs. From each egg emerges a strand of what we call silk (and what in other flowers, we would call the pistil) which grows out of the sheaf in which the cob is contained. The male sex cells are carried by pollinators or by the wind from the tassels above to the silks, and they grow down the silk to the eggs which are then fertilized. Each kernel is a fertilized egg, the embryo of a new corn plant. We eat these “embryos” at their milk stage, when they are liquidy, and at their peak of sugar. Peter’s response to this discussion, I should note, is to ask whether everything in America has to be about sex?
The sweet corn grown by native Americans originated as a natural mutation of field corn, and the sugar content of the kernels was typically between 5 and 10%. To enjoy the sweetness, the Indians had to cook and eat the corn within a half hour of harvest. In the twentieth century, through selective breeding and ultimately identification of specific sweetness genes, varieties have been bred with anywhere from 20 to 50% sugar content. This increased sugar content gave the corn an extended shelf life, and the ability to be refrigerated and shipped long distance. Even though the process of conversion from sugar to starch starts immediately upon picking, the corn will still be plenty sweet when eaten. Nonetheless, the basic principle – the closer to picking that you eat the corn, the sweeter it will be — remains the same. If you want to enjoy corn at the apex of sweetness for dinner, order it for 5 pm pickup at the farm, and ask us to pick it at 4:30. It will make a difference.
Cooking the corn and preparing it with milk or butter, as is common in many sweet-corn eating cultures, has two nutritional benefits. The cooking increases the levels of ferulic acid, which has anti-cancer qualities, and the preparation with milk products makes the B vitamin niacin in the corn available. We generally boil our corn cobs briefly in water with milk added and then slather it with butter and salt, though I assure you it is the luscious taste sensation we are after, not the niacin or ferulic acid. In Latin America, corn is often served with beans – each contains amino acids lacking in the other, and in combination they therefore provide something of a balanced diet.
I cannot pretend, however, that today’s sweet corn is a health food. We must admit that we have in other essays railed against the dominance of corn in the American diet. The classic fast food burger and French fry lunch features beef that (unlike ours) has been largely raised on corn, ketchup based on corn syrup to be slathered on the fries, and soft drinks sweetened with corn. From breakfast cereal to dessert after dinner in the evening, it’s corn all the time. The devotion of so much land to a monoculture of corn, now used additionally for the production of ethanol, has been environmentally damaging.
Most of the year, I am my mother’s son, a dutiful collaborator with the food police, abstaining to the fullest extent possible from such evil dietary additives as sugar, butter and salt. But increasingly every year at this point in the summer, in spite of myself I become my father’s son, the wanton indulger in forbidden pleasures. I am no longer a youth who thinks it is paramount to live in zealously pure adherence to my ideals all the time. Aging, I am beginning to realize, is in part about compromising with the reality of my impulses and desires, including, as my daddy taught me so well, the desire for a little sugar. Enjoying sweet corn at the peak moment of its sugary tenderness, bathed in milk and butter and liberally seasoned with salt, is a transcendent joy, to be savored repeatedly as long as the season lasts. Which, unfortunately, is all too short.
Damn the food police. We admit that we are producing what is essentially vegetable candy. Yes, I love it, and you will too.