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June 16: July River of Stones

July 16, 2011

Putting up corn
teases all my senses—
sticky, sweet kernels,
the sharp knife edge
sliding down the cob,
the ping as it hits
my big metal bowl.
Taste should wait,
but this cook exercises
her prerogative, licking
my fingers.

Today I pay homage. I am putting up corn.

I learned the process of moving corn from the stalk to the table in reverse. My grandfather’s mercy and sense of humor played a part, I’m sure. My father’s parents were farmers. Even though he worked as a crane operator for Reynolds Aluminum long enough to retire, receiving a Reynolds tie clip with a diamond chip (now mine), he was always a farmer at heart. He grew up in a large poor rural family, and after his father’s death, he went to work as a sharecropper for a black farmer in the area.

Eventually he and my grandmother ended up with a red brick ranch-style house on Chisolm Highway in Zip City, Alabama, just before the Tennesse line, and several acres of farm land. My daddy was the son who escaped the farm, the one who went to college, made a preacher. My mother’s folks were river people—not the wealthy ones with a home site chosen for the view, but creek bank cane pole fishers. Daddy’s parents farmed, mainly to provide food for themselves and their offspring, though until he was too old to do it anymore, Pawpaw would fill up his truck bed so heavy with watermelons, it scraped the ground when he pulled out of his driveway, setting up in the fire department parking lot by the highway to sell them.

The first year I married, I was a novice in the kitchen. My mother had cooked, but with five children, she may have found it easier to do things herself than to take us one by one and teach us. More likely, I was off somewhere with a book. That first year, my grandparents were always sending me vegetables—bags of potatoes, half-runners beans, pink-eyed purple-hull peas, and corn. The first time I lit into Pawpaw’s corn, though, I called my dad in horror—all the corn had worms in the end. Pawpaw was there at Daddy and Mama’s house when I called, and he laughed until his sides hurt when he heard what I’d reported.

“Tell her I’ve never seen an ear of corn without a worm,” he said. “That’s the protein.”

Not until many years later did I learn—while sharing breakfast at Shoney’s Big Boy with my dad and the man who for many years was the Lauderdale County agent—that my grandfather was organic before anyone used the term. When others were jumping on the pesticides bandwagon, he resisted, preferring his own old-fashioned methods. That meant putting up with a few worms—cutting off the ends and throwing them out in the yard.

For awhile, during my years as a newlywed, my grandmother would give me bags of cream-styled corn she’d prepared for the freezer, pure culinary gold. Eventually though, she’d invite me over in late July or early August when the corn was ready, and she’d let me help me ladle the corn from the big pots into bags, earning my share. Gradually, I was invited earlier in the day for shucking, silking, and cutting the corn. Finally one summer, she sent me out into the fields one steamy August Alabama morning with my grandfather and my cousins to pick. I’d come full circle.

For someone who has always taken lots of photographs, even before the digital age, I am surprised that I never took pictures of the farms rituals, especially bringing in and putting up corn: the farm truck loaded and pulled into the front yard, everyone sitting on lawn chairs, working and watching the traffic moving down the highway toward the state line and back. Pawpaw kept his big stone for sharpening blades and ruined one of my best knives, trying to helpful.

By noon, with most of the work done, we’d be eager to head home and shower, getting rid of the sticky corn starch, the splatters of kernels lodged in our hair and eyebrows from the scraping (slicing the kernels, then sliding the knife blade down to scrape off the good juice).

This year, I bought my corn from a local farmer. Until I moved from Alabama to North Carolina, I’d rarely paid for vegetables, but now I’m a regular at the local farmer’s market, buying for a meal or two at the time. I knew it was time to step it up, to prepare for a winter without relying on canned goods from the grocery store down the road. Now I have a few dozen ears of Peaches and Cream corn—white and yellow mix—shucked and waiting on my patio table for me to complete the job, silking, scraping the kernels and their nectar into a big metal pan, then to move inside to the stove for the next steps. By the time I’m finished, I’ll be a mess, but one with a sense of accomplishment and a genuine appreciation for each of those little quart bags of corn I once ate without regard for the effort involved.

Too late I say thank you, Mama Coats. Thanks, Pawpaw.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2011 8:11 pm

    This is a great story. I liked being able to step into your world a bit…and I love fresh, sweet corn on the cob.

  2. January 3, 2012 3:53 am

    Oh, I LOVE this essay. Thank you for sharing!

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