Seasons were once great indicators of what was available fresh. They had to be, as we had no access to fresh produce out of season. While we have access to fresh produce year around now, the “farm to table” movement has really brought the focus back to eating local produce seasonally. Ears of corn were something I particularly remember enjoying in the summers of my childhood. Rarely did my dad’s garden produce many, but fresh corn on the cob was a very special treat. Typically, a bowl of steaming ears of corn was set on the table at noon. While we fidgeted, my dad sliced the kernels from the cob. Buttered and salted, I have never forgotten the utter enjoyment of that delicious treat.
Corn on the cob is a term used for a cooked ear of freshly picked corn. Technically, the ear’s seeds are in their “milk stage” — very tender. Steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled or wrapped and baked in aluminum foil, ears of corn can be prepared numerous ways. Should you remember nothing else, the best way to guarantee perfectly crips, juicy kernels is not boiling the corn at all – which you will see in my recipe.
Ancient DNA extracted from corn provides a window into its past. Excavated from a cave in Mexico, evidence suggests that maize was domesticated 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Mayans ate corn either by roasting or boiling it. Some suggest sweet corn reached North America as far east as Ohio before the Pilgrims arrived —makes me wonder how it got to Virginia where Thomas Jefferson noted that corn was available only from about July 8th to the end of September at Monticello.
Once, not many decades ago, corn had to be eaten within hours of being harvested, but science has done wonders since those days, and today boiling water need not be started before harvesting. Back then, in a single day fresh corn once lost up to 25% of its sweetness. (Its sugar turned to starch.) After a couple of days, an ear typically had lost all starch. Years of research improved corn to cause it to remain super sweet over time, but progress comes at a price. While super sweet corn tastes sweet and has a shelf-life up to one week, it also has fewer soluble molecules, which means its kernels are crunchier and less creamy. Perhaps you haven’t noticed.
Eating corn gracefully challenged those whose task it was to describe proper table manners. Lillian Watson’s 1921 book on etiquette, described corn on the cob as “without a doubt one of the most difficult foods to eat gracefully.” She added that “it is entirely permissible to use the fingers in eating corn, holding it lightly at each end; sometimes a napkin is used in holding it.” Sometimes, a short sharp knife might be provided permitting one to cut the kernels from the cob. She described this as “by far the most satisfactory method.” Had Ms. Watson bothered to look, she would have found that whimsical little swords for holding corn were patented in the U.S. as early as 1909. She could have suggested using those.
My mother, sisters and I noticed the absence of corn on menus on our first trip to Europe in 1964, but the fact that Americans ate corn was well known by our German relatives. They thought it funny that we “rich Americans” were eating corn. To them corn was cattle feed, and that may have been true. The sweet corn Americans ate was quite different. When my aunt came to spend a summer in Texas, we introduced her to real corn, and she fell in love with it. To our amazement, so finally did Europeans. In subsequent trips American-style corn appeared on menus all over Europe.
Another revolutionary thing about corn is how well it freezes. People have been freezing foods as a means of preservation since as early as 1000 B.C., when the Chinese stored goods in ice cellars. Yet the frozen food industry would be nothing without Clarence Birdseye, the man responsible for frozen vegetables. He understood the logistics of freezing vegetables without deforming the tissue. As a young engineer, Birdseye watched the Inuit tribe who froze their catch of fish instantly. Later, upon thawing, the fish wasn’t mushy. Still, it wasn’t until 1927 that Birdseye patented a flash-freezing method. In 1930, the first line of frozen foods went public through the Birds Eye Frosted Food Company. Frozen fresh vegetables became available to all Americans.
Then World War II happened and canned goods were sent to our fighting men. Americans were encouraged to purchase frozen foods instead. Frozen foods required fewer ration points than canned, and their popularity grew. By the post-war years, between 1945 and 1946, Americans were buying 800 million pounds of frozen food. The eating habits of Americans had changed once again. With the invention of fish sticks and the 98-cent TV dinner in 1954, frozen meals became an American staple. Today, however, they make up less than 1% of all frozen foods. Ah, the ebb and flow of trends.
The Perfect Foolproof Boiled Corn
Using a Dutch oven with capacity of 7 qt. capacity
6 ears, husks and silk removed
4 quarts water
Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large Dutch oven
Turn off heat!
Add corn to water, cover, and let stand 10 minutes or up to 30 minutes.
Transfer corn to a large platter and serve immediately
Add butter, salt, and pepper to taste
2 tbls salt
4 tsp chili powder
¾ tsp grated lime zest
Mix in a small bowl and sprinkle on corn