Saturday, February 6, 2010

Kansas in August

             You would think that someone who grew up in Ohio knows everything there is to know about corn. It’s not so, not by a long shot. Corn and I do have a long history, however.

            My father grew up on a farm in Western Ohio. His family lost their property during the Great Depression, and as the saying goes, you can take the man out of the farm but never the other way ‘round. In our Youngstown garden, corn was top dog. Dad never bothered to tend his tomatoes, and was indifferent about berries, lettuce and potatoes, but the corn was always perfect.

            I developed an ambivalent relationship with this big grass. One of my pre-teen jobs was gardening. Turning the soil in spring was fun: big earthworms would pop from half the shovel thrusts, and I’d grab them for post-shoveling fishing treks to Crab Creek, an easy bike ride away. However, by the time the earth was warm enough for corn to go in, the weather was shifting and the fun, dissolving. Dad was taking over. Sure it was great to go to the seed store with him – there were bins of different varietals and glossy Burpee packets, and the place smelled of hay and sweetness – but I knew before we ever left home he’d prevaricate and then go on to buy Golden Cross Bantham, like every other year, ignoring my suggestion we try a white kernel brand or one of the new super-sweet hybrids.

            Then it would be suddenly summer. I had to cultivate, weed, and dust the crop with insecticide, all in the hot sun. We never weeded in the cool morning – you wanted the weeds to die, after all. If it were a dry year Dad would rig a hose from the house and spray the crop all afternoon – my job if he was on a particularly demanding work shift. Our home thrummed to the repeating rhythm of the pump, my mother fretting about the well running dry and me dreaming of someplace more amusing, like the beaches of Lake Erie.

            Corn in summer is an amazing plant. It grows like crazy, up to several inches a day, shooting from embryo to pollination in weeks. At dawn its sweet smell oozes, and a big field of it “talks” – the leaves and stems brushing together from the slightest breeze, or even the force of growth. This makes a cornfield a spooky place at night – the best time, it turns out, to chase away raccoons.

            There’s few culinary pleasures that match fresh sweet corn. The trick with cooking the older hybrids – like Golden Cross – is reducing stalk-to-pot time to an absolute minimum. Their sugars convert rapidly to starch, so the fresher the corn, the sweeter. With a patch in our back yard, our family’s house was a favorite picnic location for family, co-workers and friends. Crowds would materialize in the dining room. The ears would be so sweet and fresh I’d forget that the rituals of speedy cutting and cooking was yet another opportunity for parental obsession.

            Of course there’s more to corn than on-the-cob. Our next-door neighbor grew field corn, used to feed cattle, and “criminal elements” in the nearby “bad neighborhood” made moonshine from corn. I knew this for a fact because they’d dump used mash along our road.

            On a hot August day you can smell mash before you see it – imagine a cask of Jack Daniels broken on your neighborhood sidewalk – but even before then you know it’s there. A crowd of birds hovers along the ditch, and they behave most strangely: flapping with unsynchronized wing strokes, running into bushes, falling to earth. There might be a drunken rat or two, sitting on its haunches and surveying what must be an amusing and hazy horizon.

            Whenever I came to mash piles I had two thoughts: How does it (making moonshine) work? (I was a chemist at heart) and Why would anyone drink something that smells so vile?

            I was reminded of these musings several weeks ago when I decided to make a leaven from corn. The results looked and smelled almost exactly like mash, only less enticing. When I made a bread from the stuff the results were about as unpleasant as the one time I tried sampling mash.

            Still, I think there’s possibilities for corn leavens if the sourness is neutralized. One of the most rewarding culinary experiences we had in Texas last month was tamales at a place called The Little Diner. I want to make tamales just like those – or better, if possible. I’m hoping fermented corn takes me there.

            These days corn has a bad reputation. It’s a poster boy for unsustainable agriculture, the source for high-fructose syrups, a medium for cattle antibiotics and a prime source of income for genetic engineering corporations. Yet when it comes to basic nutrition and excellent taste, corn is one grain that’s hard to beat. We who are celiacs can eat it – and should. And there’s one big gift we get from corn: xanthan gum is derived from it. Just don’t ask me how.

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