Smile Politely

Learning to dislike corn

I don’t like sweet corn. I know in East Central Illinois it makes me a “Godless Communist,” but it’s true. I don’t really care for sweet corn.

Before you say, “Oh you just haven’t had good corn, you need to try xyz,” or “If you’d only had it prepared correctly,” or “Blah, blah, blah,” consider that, from the age of six on, I spent the pre-dawn hours of Saturday mornings helping my parents harvest sweet corn for our farmers market stand.

Some children fear monsters; I feared having my skin sliced by seemingly endless rows of wet leaves, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and being covered in itch-inducing pollen-all while struggling to balance dozens of ears on my arms.

With regard to the it’s-best-right-out-of-the-field adage, it’s true. Corn’s sugars start to convert to starch as soon as the ears are removed from the plant. Eating an ear of corn sooner rather than later, does yield a sweeter result. And, from late June on, you could guarantee that at least once and sometimes twice a day, freshly harvested corn was going to be on the menu at our house. So it isn’t that.

We raised both Country Gentleman and some of the early Illini Supersweet hybrids. The two couldn’t have been more different. Country Gentleman is a somewhat nutty-flavored, open pollinated variety with creamy white kernels that are scattered about the ear. In the South, corn with this type of kernel arrangement was often referred to as shoepeg. Open pollinated corn varieties are now regarded as heirloom curiosities in the United States. In places like Tepoztlán, Mexico, they are regarded as gifts from God, which is not too far from how my father regarded Country Gentleman. In his mind, you couldn’t grow a better type of corn. Open-pollinated corn is about as far from capitalism as you can get because it produces viable seed. Thus, the farmers who grow it need not purchase additional seed to grow it the following season.

That is not the case with Illini Supersweet and its descendents. In addition to requiring farmers to purchase new seed each year, these hybrid varieties have been engineered to contain ever higher levels of sugar. At some point, I expect to pull back the husks and see candy corn instead of kernels. That these super sweet hybrids have replaced varieties like Country Gentlemen in the marketplace isn’t surprising when you consider that we’ve been consuming increasingly more sugar for decades. People expect their corn to be sweet and when the ante in the rest of their diet increases, it only stands to reason that their corn must become sweeter, as well.

My sister scored Country Gentleman at her farmers market last summer. I have not been so lucky in my quest for corn that tastes like corn. Nor do I expect to. Watching people paw through truckloads of super sweet corn like rabid raccoons at the Urbana Farmers Market last Saturday, it was obvious what sells. We grew what we had to, to survive in the marketplace. I don’t expect local farmers to do otherwise.

I could grow my own, but I have too much shade and far too many real raccoons traipsing through my backyard. And so I cope by eating a couple of ears, not a week as my colleague Caleb asked last Saturday at the farmers market, but a season. I sprinkle them with chili powder, salt, and lime juice to cut the sweetness. And, I wait until next season.

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