Children were not allowed to cut corn. We were too short and too young to shear the ears from the towering stalks. Before sunrise, Nannie, my mother and my aunt crossed the road to the corn field, carrying old steak knives and wearing my late grandfather’s long-sleeved shirts to protect themselves from the skin-slicing leaves. My mother used shoe laces to tie off her pants at the ankles; her worst fear was having a corn snake dart up her leg.
After it was cut, my brother Ben, my cousin Lori and I helped shuck, or we’d use soft brushes to remove the silks. When corn is very fresh the silks cling stubbornly to the kernels and must be pried away — gently but firmly — like a kindergartener from his mother’s knees.
Once cleaned of shucks and silks, each ear was pushed down a narrow wooden board that had a sharp grate in the middle, the kernels falling into a large enameled pan below. At twelve, I was given a turn at the grater. (There was a ready supply of Band-Aids by the sink, and I quickly discovered why.)
Finally, the grated corn was blanched, bagged and frozen. Then we all sat on the porch playing banjos, singing "Jimmy Crack Corn" and passing around a jug of moonshine, or we just sat on the porch, too tired to talk.
You’d think, having bushels of fresh corn, we would have eaten it for days during the brief summer corn harvest, but very few ears were set aside for immediate consumption. We did eat some of it creamed, and whole ears deep-fried. When I tell friends about deep-fried (unbattered) ears of corn, they stare at me, dumbfounded. Truthfully, it’s something that sounds better than it tastes. The plump kernels shrink and get slightly tough. I like it much better very lightly boiled, hardly cooked at all.
No one ate raw corn, though we would gnaw on an uncooked ear once in a while, marveling at its crisp sweetness, wondering why we felt uneasy, rebelliously unsafe, eating it raw. This was years before salad bars, pink-centered pork and sushi and raw was a word associated with worms, germs and trichinosis. To this day, my mother cooks everything until it is damned well dead. Not Romeo and Juliet dead. If it could be faking death, it’s not dead enough.
When we have my parents over for a meal, it’s a balancing act, teetering between past and present, modern versus traditional. These corn cakes please all of us. I usually serve them as part of an old-fashioned vegetable plate — corn cakes with smoked tomato dipping sauce, black-eyed peas and rice (topped with diced Vidalia onion), just-made cole slaw, sliced tomatoes and a seasonal dessert. And then I get out my banjo...
Corn Cakes with Smoked Tomato Dipping Sauce
2 cups of fresh corn sliced off the cobb, about three ears
1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced
½ cup red bell pepper, finely diced
2 small or 1 large green onion, finely diced
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
½ cup buttermilk or milk
1 Tbsp mild hot sauce (like Crystal)
peanut oil for frying
Mix together the dry ingredients — flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Mix together the wet ingredients — egg, buttermilk, hot sauce. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, just until moistened. Fold in the vegetables — corn, jalapenos, bell pepper and green onion. Let sit for at least ten minutes.
Heat an inch of peanut oil in a large heavy skillet. Drop heaping tablespoons full of corn mixture into the oil and flatten each one a bit with the back of the spoon. Fry until golden on one side, flip them over and fry until golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.
Smoked Tomato Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup smoked, sun-dried tomatoes (You can substitute regular sun-dried tomatoes if you can’t find the smoked variety.)
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
juice of ½ lemon
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Cover the sun-dried tomatoes with hot water and let sit for a few minutes, until plump. Drain and set aside.
In a food processor, blend together the smoked sun-dried tomatoes, garlic clove, lemon juice, honey and Dijon mustard until well blended. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. With the food processor running, add in the olive oil very slowly. Taste for salt, pepper, acid and sweet. Add more salt, more pepper, more honey or more lemon juice to taste. Cover and refrigerate.