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Getting to the Heart of Corn



In my right hand, I hold an ear of corn. It is fully clothed in a thick husk with a nape of stringy blond silk pouring out the top. The farmer who sold it to me said it's of the semisweet variety, and it was yanked from the stalk two days ago. This means I must act fast. The simple sugars in corn turn to starch the instant it's picked. By tomorrow, each kernel will be less supple and sweet, more mealy and tough.

Overcome with zeal, I peel back the husk with ritualistic fervor. The Aztec likened this same act to tearing the heart out of a human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli -- god of fire, war and sun. Having never made a symbolic offering to Huitzilopochtli before now, I stay mellow and do not scream for him to notice. I simply hold the naked corn, say a quick prayer for sweet flavor and good dental checkups, and lower it into my jaw for a raw gnash off the hard cob.

"For the Aztec," author Betty Fussell tells us in The Story of Corn, "man was made of bone ground into a meal and stuck together with maize and moistened with penitential blood." Taken literally, this would be a goo ball of primal nastiness. But from another angle, the blurred line between man and corn for the Aztec underlies the fundamental role the golden vegetable played in their life, art and mythology. Fussell scours this civilization and the entire Western hemisphere, past and present, in her fully illustrated monologue and concludes that corn is indeed at the center of our lives

Consider all this as her support: Corn feeds the world's legion of edible livestock; corn syrup is the base for most carbonated beverages; cornmeal is the foundation of bread, tortillas and polenta; cornstarch is the thickening agent for soups and sauces and is used to make plastic, dynamite and penicillin; corn husks wrap tamales; corn silk is used in herbal cigarettes and medicinal tea; fermented corn makes chicha, a potent Peruvian beer, as well as Kentucky bourbon; corn oil is used to make paint; corn cob is the pipe from which your grandfather smoked his tobacee; and popped corn -- that's a multi-million-dollar industry all unto itself.

Corn is everywhere, its value endless.

I am willing to admit that, aside from being handy party talk, we rarely give two squirts about the historical significance of corn. Instead, we surround ourselves with more practical issues that have modern applications. Here are three pressing ones that immediately come to mind.

1. Should we eat corn on the cob with or without those little corn-shaped corn holders?

Truth is, corn holders limit the fulfillment of the man-corn paradigm established by those crafty Aztecs. It is only by rubbing your fingers and thumbs onto the tiny, yellow kernels and dragging the cob back and forth across your front teeth that one achieves a true umbilical union with corn.

2. What's the fastest way to cook corn and still have it taste good?

Corn can be grilled, roasted or microwaved, with or without the husk, but most Americans interested in natural flavor and speed tend to strip it down and boil it. Using this method, too often the mistake is made of adding salt to the water or letting the corn boil too long. Both of these faux pas draw the natural sugars out of the vegetable and decrease its flavor potential.

Instead, taste your corn raw before boiling it to determine how long it should cook (between one and 10 minutes depending on firmness). Also, add sugar to the boiling water and maybe a little milk. This'll keep the kernels sweet and punchy.

3. Is it bad manners to roll your corn on a stick of butter?

On one hand, there's the sheer ease of rolling -- a smooth twist of the wrist is all it takes to butter an ear of corn. On the other hand, rolling has long been thought of as crass table manners, akin to stabbing your steak or talking with a full mouth.

In an attempt to resolve the issue of rolling, I called up Ma-maw, my granny -- a beacon of good manners and a source for trustworthy advice -- to see where she stood on the matter. Ma-maw doesn't mince words regarding manners, mind you, and she had this to say:

(In cute Ma-maw voice) "Your great-uncle Charlie couldn't eat corn after he lost his teeth, but before that, he'd roll it in the butter all the time, and no one ever said a word to him about it. And you know, your Uncle Charlie was a very classy man."

She's right. He was. And that settles it as far as I'm concerned. If rolling corn in the butter is good enough for Uncle Charlie, it's damn well good enough for you and me.


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