Navigating the Corn Maze

Minneapolis Farmers Market
312 Lyndale Ave. N.
www.mplsfarmersmarket.com
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. daily

Auriga
1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
(612) 871-0777

www.aurigarestaurant.com
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday;5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday

Tejas
3910 W. 50th St., Edina; (952) 926-0800
www.tejasrestaurant.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
 

You've seen them, I know you have: Corn wreckers. They stand authoritatively over a pile of sweet corn, mauling, gouging, growling, messing with the husks, tugging at the silk, doing something medical to the kernels.

What the heck?

This question has long bugged me, but in a back-of-the-mind sort of way. I guess, as a child of the modern era, I figured I'd never know. The corn wreckers would live in the world with other people possessing practical, unfathomable knowledge: sailors standing on decks harrumphing at the shapes of clouds; mathematicians whistling appreciatively at chock-a-block blackboards; auto mechanics slickly adding imaginary parts to the bill.

But you live long enough, you learn some things. Like that people are maniacal about sweet corn. Like that sweet corn is one of the finest pleasures of the vegetable kingdom--sweet and fresh and pure, a front-of-the-mouth pop that is one of the basic syllables of the language of American food. Like that whatever those corn wreckers know, I want.

First stop: the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where a quick conversation with Megan, the nice young woman at the Untiedt's Vegetable Farm stand, and Arnell Beckman, the owner of Beckman's Produce, revealed quite a bit. For one, farmers all call it "sweet corn" to distinguish it from "field corn," which is what most farmers grow, for animal feed. Farmers never just call it corn--only city geeks do. For another, sweet corn will ripen only in the fields. And it needs to be eaten within 48 hours of harvest, or the sugar in it turns to starch--that's why sweet corn hasn't (yet) become a commodity flown in from New Zealand or Brazil like apples (which keep for weeks), or bananas (which ripen after picking). Preferably, you get your sweet corn within 24 hours of picking. I learned that sweet-corn harvesting is exceptionally labor intensive: You have to walk down a row of corn, squeeze each of the ears to feel which ones are ripe, and fill a burlap sack as you go. By the time you fill a sack with 60 ears, it will weigh a good 40-some pounds.

Sweet-corn farmers plant a succession of different varieties of sweet corn. Traditional sweet corn goes in the ground first--because it germinates at a lower soil temperature--and ripens first. Those were the ears you saw appearing in mid-July. After that, sweeter, more fragile hybrids with names like Sugar and Cream, Peaches and Cream, Silver Queen, and Jackpot come ripe, and any of those varieties might thrive or sputter depending on the micro-climate experienced in its particular field. The week I tried raw corn from Beckman's stand, Jackpot was sweet and almost meaty, while Sugar and Cream was pallid and undersize. But Bob said wait two weeks and the situation might be reversed. (So if you ever meet someone who insists that some hybrid or other is the best sweet corn, just nod your head and remain confident that you know better. After all, Arnell Beckman has been growing the stuff for so long he remembers the first real sweet sweet corns like tiny Baby Bantam that were popular before World War II.)

Then (finally!), I learned why those people who mess with corn mess with it: When you pull the husks back, you're looking to see that the corn has gotten enough water, if it's been too dry, the rows of kernels won't fill out to the end, and some of the kernels will be shrunken and funky looking. You want big, plump kernels all over the ear. (Sometimes the end of the ear will be snapped off, this might simply be to remove evidence of the corn earworm, who gets in at the end and worms around. You can still have good corn that had a corn earworm, so don't despair.)

Next I learned you shouldn't pay too much attention to the corn silk. While some swear fresh-looking silk is the sign of recent picking, dark corn silk on an ear might mean merely that the corn spent its last days in the field in intense heat, which can intensify the flavor. There are really only two ways to tell if corn is going to be good: Taste it, or stick a fingernail in a kernel and see if it pops--a really fresh corn kernel will burst like a water balloon.

The first time I tasted raw corn, all I thought was: Yup, raw corn. Over a few weeks I tasted probably four different ears of raw corn. You get the hang of it pretty quickly: You're tasting for an underlying current of pure sugar, which will intensify on cooking. Imagine it like iced tea: When the corn is raw it tastes like iced tea with just a spoonful of sugar; later it tastes like it has spoonfuls more, but unless the corn has that first detectable sugar it won't ever intensify.

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