On Flavor: Sweet Corn
Sweet corn season drags high expectations with it: a collective American memory of youthful pleasure, ear after ear of sweet abandon. When roasted, it smells like a used bookstore housed next to the bakery responsible for Proust’s madeleines. In late July, the corner vendor at the farmers market heralds its arrival like a superhero movie. Two weeks until sweet corn! One week until that summer childlike feeling!
Remember the cartoon of Goofy eating corn like a typewriter and how that method of eating seemed attainable, back when the teeth were tiny and the times simpler? Leave it to Disney to define a way of eating America’s only native grain in nice, neat rows. Goofy eating corn like a typewriter is about as realistic as finding Prince Charming to wake you and treat you right just after your 16th birthday.
One of the deliciously dreadful earmarks of sweet corn season is the sloppy process of consumption, endosperm bits on the mouth’s perimeter, pericarp in the teeth. Before the sweet turns into starch, we roast, husk, dress, and feast, and as the vertical cob becomes horizontal, most of us prefer not to be interrupted until the cob is stripped bare. Eating corn on the cob is aesthetically more distasteful than perhaps 35% of sex acts, yet it is considered a family activity.
It goes on like this on Sunday dinners for four, six weeks at most. Sweet corn boiled, sweet corn grilled, sweet corn covered in butter, sweet corn covered in mayonnaise. Sweet corn modified by farmers over time, trying to rid the corn of its redness, its yellowness, its chalkiness. Supersweet corn, the kind found in many supermarkets and farm fields today, was developed in a university lab in 1959. Fifty years later, food awareness culture has let us know: the corn of summer is different than the corn Illinoisan teenagers detassle during their first jobs, a different vegetable from the corn syrup packaged in cellophane, wholly apart from the starch of cafeteria cuisine.
When I was a child, sweet corn on the cob or in a casserole was a vehicle for butter and salt, and was cooked down until it served a minimal nutritional purpose. We picked up ears of corn at farm stands along the highway, where my dad sang the praises of Jersey sweet corn. I was never exposed to state fair corn roasts, and corn for me either meant the labor of husking or stewing in some sugar butter water like cereal. I believe my parents considered it a lazy side dish at restaurants, that it should be accompanied by something green in all presentations. Corn is everywhere in America; broccoli is harder in all aspects.
Corn as a part of salsa or condiment was introduced into popular culture in the late 1990s, and popularized on restaurant menus largely by Chipotle — which, come to think of it, might have been my introduction to the crisp deliciousness of raw-ish corn. It’s a superior ingredient in salsa, maintaining crunchiness throughout the salsa experience, and it’s more than welcome on salads — but going out of the way to include it in a fresh dish is a bit of a mess. Corn is a poor value-add to a salad on the individual level.
Salted, buttered, fresh corn is still delicious. So is elote, the new comfort food star of every restaurant menu. Sweet corn has been a dessert darling for a few years, coming out in ice cream or served in cakes with blueberries. However, with so many dessert options in late summer — trust me, I can never eat enough peach cobbler — it seems a shame to waste the calories on sweet corn. I prefer corn with supper, and as part of a whole. Roasted corn at the fair all alone will never do it for me.
I only prepare corn at home three ways. The first is a vegan creamed corn recipe, where the sweetness of the corn is drowned in a can of full fat coconut milk, given a little kick by some cayenne and/or smoked paprika, and garnished with ultra healthful scallions. It’s 100x more flavorful than its dairy-filled counterparts, and a staple whenever I have friends over for dinner. This is also the only corn dish I make in the off season with frozen corn, and has made an appearance at Thanksgiving dinners the past couple of years. It’s a way to introduce sweet, starchy, and hot without getting too tropical.
Sweet corn has its oft-menued partners: cheese, butter, bread crumbs, blueberries. However, I rarely see it paired with one of its natural compatriots, bacon. Bacon is overused and unfairly relegated to a novelty ingredient, and I said three years ago that I could go five years without ever eating pork belly again and I’m still not dying from lack of fried pig fat. But America is built on hogs and maize, and so one of my favorite summer dishes centers around pasta in a corn pesto, surrounded by flecks of bacon. I got the recipe from Epicurious ages ago and it’s a once-or-twice a summer delight. The corn is cooked in bacon fat, then processed until creamy and tossed with pasta and a few whole corn kernels for texture. The bacon is crumbled on top. It’s America, via Italian America, a twist on the past
The third way I choose to prepare corn is roasted, rubbed on top of a stick of butter, and salted. The preparation is as minimalist as it gets, and I’m still bewildered by the physics that keeps the cob handle from getting hot. Every time, it is worth the
As anxious as I am to get to sweet corn season, caught up in the fervor every year, I’m never disappointed once corn is out of my life again. The flavor is superb, unique, and it gets into your head but it’s bogged down in too many nostalgic obligations. I have no desire to be a child again. Show me a starch with a less complicated past. Show me a vegetable that wants to be a vegetable.
September 7, 2015 / Deborah Carver
Categories: On Flavor