At this time of year, over here on Maryland’s right-hand shore, corn is king. Sure; there are plenty of other worthy royals—soybeans, wheat, produce galore: tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, cantaloupe, onions, potatoes, squash (I could go on)—but corn is king. After all, here we are, not even a week past the fourth of July and all those royal stalks are a lot taller than knee-high, making it hard to see around country corners, but oh-so-good steaming on the dinner table at home. It’s summer’s favorite flavor, buttery hands down.
Most of the corn in our fields is zea mays, field corn that ends up as livestock fodder, ethanol, or in your breakfast cereal. When field corn matures, it will be shelled off the cob by monster machines and stored away in all those silos that dot our landscape or chopped up for silage. Maybe there will be a few leftover roasting ears to savor from all that field corn, but that’s not the corn I’m talking about here. That’s not the corn I bow down to. I pledge my fealty to sweet corn—zea mays saccharata—that naturally occurring mutation of field corn that is high in sugar content and so delicious that humans just have to eat it. However, unlike its field corn cousin, sweet corn is picked when it’s immature (its milk stage) so it can be prepared and consumed fresh as a vegetable, not a grain. Thank God for that! And while you’re at it, thank all those generous Native Americans who first shared their sweet corn (they called it ‘papoon’) with hungry European settlers back in the 18th Century.
Sweet corn contains more sugar and less starch than field corn. It comes in many varieties but the ones we know best are yellow corn (I call it butter corn), white corn (silver queen), and bi-color corn (butter and salt). Do I have a favorite? Yes; all three. Given enough butter, salt, and time, I could make a pretty good dent in a field row of sweet corn; Lord knows, I’ve tried. Sweet corn is more tender than field corn and therefore does not lend itself to mechanical harvesting. That’s why I’m often observed out on the porch shucking the ears we’ll have with dinner, making a compostable mess of husks, tassels, and silk—the detritus of yet another delicious summer evening meal.
Field corn can be fermented and turned into some pretty potent white lightening, but, of course, I wouldn’t know much about that. I do know, however, that sweet corn can make some interesting cameo appearances in forms other than ears. Just ask my friend Iffy when he’s having dessert out at Barbara’s on the Bay and she has sweet corn ice cream on the menu. If you really want to get the most out of a corn crop, you can use the cobs to stuff your mattress, or make Pappy Yokum a new pipe, or even make your own toothpaste, but I don’t recommend that. Whether you eat your corn methodically (typewriter-style) or artistically (rolling pin-style), just demolish it!
I’ve done a bit of research on the economy of sweet corn and here’s what I’ve learned: you can buy ten ears at a farm stand for about $4. If you’re shopping at your local Acme, Food Lion, or Redners, you’ll probably pay $5 for those same ten ears. Once you’re across the Bay Bridge in one of those fancy emporia in a big western-shore city, you can bet you’ll add another dollar or two to your corn bill. At least!
But you know what? A good ear of sweet corn is priceless. Please pass the butter and the salt.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com