Sweet corn, the fleeting taste of summer, has arrived.
Perhaps you love Colorado’s Olathe sweet corn or corn from another locale. Corn thrives in a massive band on the Earth delimited by the 50th degrees latitude north and south. (On the north sit Vancouver, Kyiv and Prague—hardly “Iowa.”)
This food crop is so fertile and adaptable that it grows below sea level in the Caspian Depression north of the Caspian Sea or up to 12,000 feet in elevation in the Peruvian Andes.
It’s OK with as little as 10 inches annual rainfall in Russia and can handle the 100 inches it gets on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. It will bear its grain in a speedy three-month growing season but also will be fruitful if subject to a 13-month season.
This bounty helps explain the rapid spread of what are called the Amerindian populations (in truth, empires) in both South and North America for millennia before their colonization by Europe (which was itself hampered in population growth by its far fickler grain crops of oats and especially wheat).
The ready availability and fecund growth of corn also explain the strengthening spread of these same colonizers in the New World who, immediately on disembarkation, benefited not only from this hearty crop but also the skills in producing it developed by those Native peoples.
An interesting historical side note about those Europeans: In the 1600s in Europe, after Columbus, maize (or “corn”) was taken up by European farmers, not only due to its sturdy adaptability already exhibited in its American birthplace, but also because it was a novel cereal crop and, hence, not subject to the regular tithing due by serfs to their feudal lords. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that corn was so taxed because, by that time, the state and upper classes realized the tax revenues that they had overlooked on this rapidly spreading crop.
The bounty that is corn also explains Bourbon whiskey, high-fructose syrup, ethanol, many plastics, vinyl records, fritters, hushpuppies, grits, margarine, Kellogg’s, Orville Redenbacher, Fritos and General Douglas MacArthur’s pipe.
The United States is both the largest consumer and (by far) largest producer of corn on the globe. Most interestingly, when we do eat it, we eat nearly all of it (get this: upwards of 99 percent of the annual USA production) indirectly, as it were, in the form of animal flesh and dairy products produced by other creatures who first eat it for us.
Sweet corn used for corn on the cob, more exotic corn recipes and so much more
A wee more than one percent of the corn that the U.S. produces is corn that we eat out of hand, in the form of frozen or canned kernels, for example, or corn on the cob. In 2020, we put out 14.1 billion bushels of corn, of which only 220 million were for food that we would recognize as corn.
Most of the corn that we grow is called “dent” or “flint” corn, meant to be dried and either ground, distilled, made into fuel, brewed, converted into different forms of other foods, fed to animals or exported.
Only a bit of corn is what we herald at this time of year, sweet corn. But it is a bit that bellows.
My father went to dental school in Chicago with a Frenchman named Jean-Louis. (I forget his last name; the first names are enough to establish his French bona fides). Jean-Louis was so enamored of American sweet corn — especially white-kernelled sweet corn — that he brought back sufficient seeds to plant a couple of rows of it for his annual summer enjoyment at his home on the Boulevard de la Reine in Versailles.
Such is the allure of sweet corn. (Jean-Louis was derided by his fellow countrymen because in France in those days, the mid-20th century, corn of any sort was reserved solely as fodder or feed for animals.)
Be kind to this most fleeting of foods. Sweet corn is the comet of summer eating, so be mindful and luxuriate in its gifts of opaline hues, teeth-singing sweetness, its juice down the chin and, if devoured off its cob, the happy mustache it signs on you.
Chilled Corn Soup with Coconut Milk
From Gabrielle Langholtz, editor, “America: The Cookbook” (Phaidon 2017). Serves 4 as starter or 2 as a main. Remember that the soup will be served chilled so it may call for more salt than when tasted while it is warm.
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 leek, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
5 ears of corn, kernels cut from cobs, 3 cobs reserved for corn stock
3 cups corn stock (see following recipe)
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 avocado, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup sautéed corn
In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the leek, garlic and ginger and cook until softened but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the corn, corn stock, coconut milk and salt to taste and simmer for 10 minutes.
Transfer the soup to a blender and process with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil until satiny smooth. Check the seasonings and adjust as necessary. Refrigerate until cold.
Serve garnished with the avocado, sautéed corn and a drizzle of olive oil.
Makes 3 cups
3 corn cobs, cut into pieces
1 leek, white part only, halved lengthwise
1 stalk lemongrass, halved
3 thin slices fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, sliced
In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients (except the salt) with 3 cups water and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in salt to taste. Strain stock. It will keep, covered, for 5 days in the refrigerator or for 3 months in the freezer.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com