Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sweet Corn Soliloquy

The halcyon days of summer produce have finally arrived in Eastern Iowa. Sweet corn stands are sprouting up alongside country roads, and the tables at Farmers Markets are developing an ever-so-slight swayback as, each week, more and more crops ripen.

These are the days we've been waiting for. These are the days of veritable vegetable gluttony. The days we dream of while shivering in January. The days that justify the humid agony of August: When you finish drinking the air, try a bite of this tomato!

The grocery stores have been teasing us with sweet corn imported from down south and out west for months now. Actually, those golden ears are available nearly year round, for a price. But every loyal Iowan knows this faux corn is a poor substitute for the real deal.

For corn connoisseurs (corn-oisseurs?) only homegrown Iowa sweetcorn will do – and the closer to home it's grown, the better. Sweet corn – even more so than tomatoes and watermelon – distills the essence of the land into its growth. Fresh sweetcorn bought from the neighbor down the road tastes of sunlight and humidity, of earth and place and memory. Of home.

I watched with delicious anticipation as the corn in the nearby fields sprang from ankle-high to waist-high, seemingly overnight. From there it shot directly up to “elephant's eye.” Meanwhile, produce stands – featuring close-but-no-cigar corn from Missouri – returned as seasonal parking lot squatters, and grocery stores rearranged their produce displays.

Those early, plump ears of pseudo-corn taunted me. The partially husked ears winked at me coyly. With each trip to the store, I circled my cart closer and closer to the emerald-wrapped seducer. I drove slower and slower past the parking lot PRODUCE stands.

I foolishly gave in to temptation.

The first batch of generi-corn tasted of plastic wrap and long days in a claustrophobic semitrailer.

I should have known better, having already succumbed to the enticement of a fat bottomed watermelon. The roly poly orbs, barely contained by their cardboard corral, dared me to thump and heft and sniff. Watermelon? Pseudo-melon is more like it. Where was the ruby-red juiciness of a Muscatine melon? Where was the spicy bite of Mississippi River water percolated through glacier-ground sandy soil and sediment? Where was the tincture of sunburn and fireflies and fireworks?

The second batch of getting closer-corn was (according to the blue-eyed, blond-haired farmer's daughter/produce attendant) grown in Ainsworth, only 40-ish miles away. I could taste the explosion of springtime growth, and the cool relief of summer evenings. A hint of deja-there recalled the sweetness of Dairy Mart soft serve, and left goosebumps from traversing the swinging bridge in Columbus Junction.

Now the pop-up canopies and pickup trucks with their hand-lettered signs and honor-system cash boxes sit in fields ever closer to home. Now it is only a matter of timing the arrival of the daily harvest against the number of passing commuters – and remembering to have cash on hand.

Now the sweet corn reaches its apex of flavor – steeped in sunshine and chlorophyll, thunderstorms, languid cloudless days and yes, even mosquito bites.

Now it is time for homegrown Iowa sweetcorn.

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