I struggle to find good food memories from my early childhood. By which I mean maybe 10 years old and before…
Well, for except one. Blueberry pancakes at Trout Lake. Normally, each year in August, we would go almost camping in real log cabins at this “resort” in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It was primitive. The cabins were built mostly back in the ’20s and ’30s. Mom would pack the station wagon full of a week or two’s worth of clothes for four kids and two adults, all the cooking utensils we’d need, and food staples, and more. That station wagon would be full to the gills, and the roof rack also heaped with an additional load precariously roped down with a tarp covering all.
But, back to those pancakes. I would spend hours searching a patch picking wild low-bush blueberries near our favorite cabin. And those blueberries were tiny compared to commercial berries today.
Then, one morning, mom would make us blueberry pancakes, served with real butter and real maple syrup, because, why would you use anything else? WHY?
For other memories of good food at home in the early years, I come up blank. Our household was not one that would have created food memories. My mother tried hard to provide meals from a slim budget while caught in the expectations imposed on women in the 1950s-70s.
She learned to cook from her mother who made it clear she was supposed to have staff. Though the Great Depression put an end to that possibility, my grandmother never for a moment felt that she didn’t deserve staff. She didn’t like to cook, didn’t want to cook, so my mother really never learned to cook, and she too didn’t want to cook. And I think, expected to have staff.
But every now and then, a food memory surfaces in spite of my mother, and I remember…
It’s late summer in the mid 1960s, but not so late that we’re back in school. Not yet. We’re still free! Probably late July running into August. And we’re heading home from a day at the pool. We lived in the suburbs of Hartford CT, a town called Glastonbury, and back then it was almost required that every family belonged to THE NEW pool club.
We four starving kids were loaded into the hot station wagon with no AC. But wait, what is this? We pull up to a small farm stand and there he is. This gnarled old guy. Mother asks for a dozen ears, while we kids are jumping all over the place, hungry, bored, but mostly hungry after a day swimming non-stop. We are marginally well behaved. Perhaps less than marginally.
I suspect this guy is not a real farmer. Because, why is there not a pile of picked corn for us to pull from? I’ve seen the miracle of Supermarkets and the Grand Union, after all.
The old guy disappears. For about 10 minutes. He reappears with a bag of 12 ears of corn. Maybe thirteen. He quite literally just pulled them off the stalks and took his sweet time selecting fully ripe ones. The cost is maybe a dollar? This old guy was probably born back in the late 1800s; and he knows his corn.
We also take a “pint” box of tomatoes, still warm from the field, and so large there’s only one or two in each box.
I ask “Why did he go away?” And mom, not a foodie, says matter-of-factly, “He went to pick the corn.” That was what was expected. Not flashy or pretentious, just the way it is done. Some neighbor had told my mom the best corn was to be had at this stand. She listened and was not to be outdone.
Now, that’s fresh corn.
And the corn will be yellow. What I’ve learned over the years is the best sweet corn is yellow. When I first tasted white corn, I was appalled. It was all about sugar, not about corn flavor. I reject white corn. Emphatically. If it’s not yellow, I don’t buy it. Have I made myself clear? OK, when there’s no fresh yellow corn, I will take the “butter and cream” type. Only because I have to. But I will go home empty handed if there is only white corn. Not worth the time of day…
Bag of corn stashed in the station wagon, we head home. Next up? Us kids have to shuck the corn. This is done outside on the backyard picnic table. Always.
And here’s where our personalities come out.
Dick, my older brother, grabs the husks, pulls, shreds, and rips, removing the absolute minimum needed. In about 1 minute, he has technically husked his four ears of corn. There are shreds of husk are everywhere. Parts are still on the ear as is most of the silk.
Dwight, my younger brother, after starting the process of husking an ear, has set it aside and moved it and all his other ears into my pile. And left the premises.
Diane, being 3 or 4 years old, is “too young,” says Mom, and that and because she’s a girl, mom exempts her from the duty.
I am a nerd. I admit it. I hold it as a badge supreme.
I, slowly, peel away the first outermost leaf from the ear, working carefully so as not to tear it. I set it on the picnic table. Then I determine which is the next outermost leaf, work that clear, and set it inside the leaf already on the table. Continuing, outermost leaf after outermost leaf, stacking them up inside the growing stack of leaves… When I get to the inside, all that’s left is the silk. And I take great care to pull off each thread. I’m such a nerd. And it takes a long time. Fortunately, the long time is needed while mother attempts to create “dinner” from boxes of packaged crap and frozen ingredients.
As summer turns to early fall, we still pick up sweet corn at that stand most weekends. But, the increasing number of Yellow Jackets make the task of shucking the corn on our picnic table more and more problematic. And our mother’s insistence in sending us out there to peel the corn regardless of the Yellow Jacket danger never wavered. She could not have corn peeling detritus in her house. It must be outside. I learned to shuck faster, how to swat a Yellow Jacket without getting stung, and then run the fresh ears inside. Reluctantly, that is, to go faster.
And then there’s the eating. How to do it?
There’s my little sister’s method: Pick up the ear, take a bite, put it down. Repeat randomly, never two bites next to each other.
There’s my older brothers way: Cut all the kernels off the cob, and then eat. He had braces; it comes from that and his particular OC disorder.
Then there was my way: Methodically bite off two rows from left to right, large end to the left, as if I were a typewriter. Nom, nom, nom. When reaching the right end, rotate cob top forward so that my incisors can cleanly slice off the next two rows. Repeat. And if I were to put the cob down, it would never be before reaching the end of the row.
I was such a nerd, way before being a nerd was cool.
First, let me say, any person or recipe that says “soak the ears in water…” either before or after partly shucking them is full of BS. To get Grilled Corn means taking the temperature way above 212°F, the boiling point of water. Meaning, to get grilled corn, you need to boil off all the water. Adding water means it takes more time to boil it off to get to grilling temperatures. And yes there's the argument about "it steams the corn" but we're not talking about steamed corn, we're talking about grilled corn. This is a question of style. Grilled corn needs to get really hot to caramelize and even get a little charred. Steamed corn is a different product.
So, first choice: To shuck or not to shuck.
I find both approaches, when cooked over a charcoal fired grill, produce wonderful results. The question is: Shorter time and more grilled flavor vs. longer time and less grilled flavor.
That’s your decision.
Shucked corn, over a HOT fire, will cook with almost minute by minute rotation in about 15-20 minutes. And you’ll get nicely charred and caramelized corn.
Un-shucked corn, again over a HOT fire, will cook with almost minute by minute rotation in about 25-30 minutes. The shucks will char, add flavor, fall away, and if the fire is hot enough, the falling shards of husks will flame up… But that is good. Fire good. Flavor good. And, when you get to the shucking part, the silk will come off almost completely with the shucks.
Both will be too hot to handle if processing further (like cutting off the cob for a sauté or a salad, or in the case of the un-shucked type, getting them shucked). They will need to rest a bit.
I like to serve either with soft butter, slathered over all, and then sprinkled with sea salt (or kosher, that works too). And then carefully eat, large end to small end, a pair of rows at a time.
Corn on the built in grilling fireplace in my kitchen. Sweet... Grilling all year round no matter the rain in Seattle! Original equipment in this vintage 1959 house...