Thursday, June 11, 2009


It's not quite the season here, but the tassels are waving and the seas of green in the passing-by fields are swaying like iridescent satin. I love to ride along a road that's perpendicular to the crop, when the goldy-brown comb-partings between the rows flash past in a kaleidoscope of green/gold/green/gold like flashes of sun through a picket fence. Corn is beautiful from hard, chitinous seed to milk-swelled ears tender to the bite, to bowls of thick rich creamy perfection-of-corn, cut and scraped and cooked into the very essence of the seed's promise.

There's a "Putting Up Corn" tradition in our family which starts when one of the menfolks backs a pickup up into the shade of the backyard. He wheels that familiar vehicle with a masterful hand, past the lawnchairs and into just the right spot, though he can hardly see over the high green mass of roasin' ears piled into the truckbed.

He's been out in that dusty, smothery taller-than-he field since right at daylight, snapping those hot green pockets of corn from the waving stalks. It's field corn, white corn, not those yellow sweet ears for boiling and munching from the cob. This is starch-laden, thicken-in-a-minute, heavy white milk-swollen corn, made to be cut and stirred into custardy perfection.

He'll leave you the pickup; you gather whatever helpers you can. He's on to more important work...he'll go mount a tractor cab or another truck and carry on with his long, dusty day. It is time for whoever is in the house, or who can be called or commanded or coerced into gathering under those trees for corn duty. The whish of husks, the crisp snap of the stems, an occasional whack onto the grayed old picnic table to dislodge the frowning, disgruntled cornworm, and the pans of white ears grow fuller as the pile of greenery on the ground gains in height.

Smaller hands are handed brushes, to briskly "silk" the corn--Southern cooks are as finicky about cornsilks as they are about no dark meat in the chicken salad. They'd as soon find a bug in the pot as a cornsilk---that's just trashy.

Experienced hands take the corn into the kitchen, where the backsplash and several yards of counter and ESPECIALLY the oversink windows are lined with taped-on newspaper, fresh garbage bags, or paper towels, take your pick---just don't let that splash hit the counters. Why, when old Mr. Prysock was laid out at home, someone had to scrape all the dried corn-splashings off the windowsill before that kitchen was fit to serve in. The GCL didn't let on, but they never did look at Mrs. P's cooking the same again.

Great washings and splashings and laying out on kitchen towels---neat rows form pyramids, fresh damp cool of wrung-out towels cover the waiting mounds, and the cutting begins. Very sharp knife, dishpan in sink, corn held tipdown, and one neat cut sliced down, taking just the tip off each kernel. Then the blade is reversed, scraping the dull side down each facet in rotation until all the white milky nectar is released into the bottom of the pan.

Three or four hundred ears are prepared this way, then comes the "blanching" of pan after pan over LOW heat, flat-paddle stirring until the small bubbles rise--each bubble a gentle "puh" as the mass thickens. Quick cooling of pans set into icewater, quicker scooping into small square freezer boxes, and the chore is done.

There is no actual frying to the "skillet corn" of my family's recipe. The same black skillet which turned out equally brown-crusted cornbread and catfish and chicken served to cook my Mother's fried corn. She plopped a stick of Blue Bonnet into the skillet and stuck it into the heating oven to melt. Two or three of the quart containers, straight from the freezer, were dipped briefly into hot water to loosen the contents, then the frozen white blocks were clunked out into the hot skillet. A moat of water was poured around, salt showered across the top, then into the oven.

An occasional pull of the skillet out with one hand, as the other spoon-scraped the thawing corn off the tops of the mounds; when all had been melted and stirred into the water, the skillet went back in, to bake into a custardy, golden-topped creamy perfection unrivaled in taste and texture. Tiny crunches of the kerneltips punctuated the velvety bites; balance of salt and butter and crusty top made this the most memorable dish in my Mom's considerable arsenal of killer recipes.

Despite the starch-laden Thanksgiving table's having dressing, potatoes, sweet potatoes AND cheese and macaroni, the skillet of corn held precedence over it all, surpassing even the turkey in importance. There were center-spooners, savoring the silky creaminess; the crust-scrapers enjoyed the crunchy butteriness mixed into their spoonful. Nobody skipped the corn.

I have to depend on Farmers' Markets, and only recently have we again "put up" three hundred ears at one time, but I have the skillet and the know-how, and the taste lives on.


Indy Cookie said...

The memories this post brings back! You call the next time you put up corn and I'll be there!

Keetha said...

When I was little, my cousins lived in Scott - I think my uncle was working for Delta Pine. My brother and I spent a week or so there each summer and I remember stepping into a muddy, muddy garden to get a watermelon. I also remember sitting on a bricked patio under a mimosa tree getting the silks out of fresh corn. That job quickly lost its glamour after a few minutes!

racheld said...

Ahhhh, the Summer activities made easier by the fragrant shade of a mimosa! They were ringed all round the yard of my growing-up home, and were the site of many reading afternoons, and pea-shelling ones, and there is still probably a smaller one in the lineup, stunted from our swinging around it when we used it for second base.

racheld said...

And Indy Cookie,

I'd be delighted to have your company and your help. It's not a one-person job, and several hands make the work lighter.