At farmers markets, people don’t just buy sweet corn. They attack it. They rip back husks, jab thumbnails into sample kernels and wait for the plump grains to erupt with milk. The fresher the corn, the more furiously they rip and jab, rip and jab, as they form jealous piles of the select cobs and toss aside half-shucked rejects.
You won’t see this at a grocery store. There is plenty of perfectly respectable corn sold in these places but, often as not, it will be pre-shucked and shrouded in plastic wrap. At best, it will be 3 to 7 days old. This is no scandal. It will be more than edible, it will be good, a huge improvement on what was available only years ago.
Even so, it will have lost some of its crunch. The milk will have lost its freshness and the husk won’t have the aroma that makes buying corn at a farmers market the sensual equivalent of a deep snort of sunbaked grass.
The crop’s stubborn seasonality and perishability has made it one of the country’s few truly collective delicacies. Everyone has an opinion about how to cook it, or a technique for grilling, a thought about butter and salt, because everyone has craved that field-fresh taste. It has an almost paradoxical identity: It’s a universal luxury.
Luxury because although corn is our No. 1 crop, the vast majority isn’t sweet corn, it’s field corn. This is grown high, dried on the stalk, mowed down and processed dozens of ways into hundreds of products.
One at a time
Sweet corn must be picked by hand. In Southern California, a small number of growers start planting in February and keep going all spring. Ears begin appearing in farmers markets in June, and a small but steady succession will keep coming throughout the summer.
The plants are marvels. The roots, stem and leaves suck up nutrients and water from the ground, and then, during photosynthesis, convert it to sugars. This is whisked off to ears for storage. As the plant grows, it focuses all of its energy on making ears.
There are usually two per plant. Inside them, husk leaves conceal row after row of tiny flowers. As these ready for pollination, silks appear from the end of the husk. At the top of the plant, the tassel appears.
When the plant is mature, it releases pollen, which is caught by the silks, carried into the ear and fertilizes the many rows of flowers, which become kernels, or corns. When you see corn with barren tips, it doesn’t mean a pest has got to your corn before you. It usually means inadequate pollination.
The corn is ready to eat when the silk begins to turn brown, but not the husk leaves. There is no time to waste: The corn must be caught at the peak of ripeness, before a built-in senescence tells the plant to stop growing. When this happens, the plant stops making sugar and sending it to the ears. Rather, sugar stored there is cued to become starch, to feed a seed through germination.
Pickers can see a ripe ear at a glance. Jeff Kelly has 30 acres of Jubilee super sweet corn in Chino. Throughout the summer, he has a crew of six to eight men harvesting every morning from 6 a.m. Within 24 hours, it will be in farmers markets.
Kelly says that he grows super sweet because it’s better than old-fashioned varieties. Until recently, the sugars turned to starch so quickly after picking, the “first boil the water, then pick your corn” adage was born.
But in the 1950s, an Illinois geneticist named John Laughnan realized that some lines of corn were inefficient at storing starch but exceptionally efficient at producing sugar. He began selecting the seeds and cross-breeding them.
Super sweet corn is so far removed from its wild ancestor, a tall Mexican grass called teosinte, that until recently, nobody was quite sure where domesticated sweet corn came from. But consensus now seems to be that ancient indigenous people systematically inbred teosinte, until it became modern corn. Some proponents of genetically modified corn even point to teosinte to support their work. Their argument: If you think the gene-splicing that Monsanto is up to is extreme, take a look at what the Aztecs did with this puppy.
Meanwhile, some heirloomists lament the demise of the sweet corn left obsolete by Laughnan. They yearn for plain old sweet corn. It tastes more like corn, less like sugar, they say.
Maybe, says Kelly, but his customers aren’t clamoring for starchy corn.
When it comes to white versus yellow corn, there’s no difference in flavor, says Neelima Sinha, a professor of plant biology at UC Davis. Nutritionally, colored corn might have the edge in beta carotene and other pigment-related plant nutrients.
So grassy, so sweet
In a perfect world, we would know more about all those wild corns between teosinte and super sweet. But our choice is supermarket super sweet or farmers market super sweet. We fall on the farmers markets corn because it’s got the edge not just on sweetness, but milky firmness and captivating grassy aromas.
It’s so good that there are those who insist that cooking it is a travesty. It should be eaten raw. Then there are those who will fix you with a supercilious look as you reach for the butter and salt and announce that they eat theirs straight from the pot.
Yep, it’s good straight from the pot.
But why not cook with corn at its best? By insisting that super fresh corn only be eaten near raw, we are relegating corn cookery to the canning and frozen food industry.
But use the freshest of the fresh, then add butter, add cream, add salt, add pepper and small miracles happen. Reader, we’ve been up to our neck in corn here recently, and even succotash, made with farmers market sweet corn, was good.
Go ahead, cook it
We put three recipes through their paces. In Mary Sue Milliken’s and Susan Feniger’s relish, day-fresh sweet corn brought a bright, sweet note, contrasting to the richness of the oil, avocado, vinegar and pepper.
Chowder was a revelation. This is usually made with canned corn and has a certain mushy, comforting quality, particularly as a hangover cure, invigorated by the soupcon of aluminum.
But make it with day-fresh sweet corn, bring down the cooking time and take a light hand with the cream, and you have flavors that are light, vibrant and uniquely summery.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is a succotash recipe from Jeremy Lee, Scottish head chef of the Blue Print Cafe in London. Lee is a mad keen bean cook. Sweet corn came to his attention because of the Latin habit of growing beans alongside corn and using the stalks as trellising.
After deciding to put them in the same pot, he recalls dimly having stolen the recipe from James Beard. In it, he not only spares us the school lunch ingredient of lima beans, he calls for super fresh corn, which holds up so well that one can finally understand why succotash was one of America’s defining dishes.
Southern California has the longest sweet corn season in the country. It starts in June and keeps coming through autumn. This may yet make great corn cooks of us. It gives us enough to cook with after we’ve sated ourselves on corn on the cob, grabbing ear after ear and greedily stripping them clean.