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Lucy Mercer

Lucy Mercer
Location
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I cook, I write, I carpool. You may also find my words at A Cook and Her Books. Email acookandherbooks@gmail.com. Thanks for visiting!

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AUGUST 15, 2010 9:07PM

Granddaddy's Cast-Iron Skillet Fried Corn

Rate: 21 Flag
corn
 
 
One of the distinctive characteristics of living in the New South, cookie-cutter suburban Atlanta, is that the Old South, the rural, hardscrabble life that James Agee and others wrote about is never far from view. Reminders can be as vivid as the tar paper shack I drive by on the carpool run - rusted refrigerators and livestock in the yard, enclosed with a barbed wire fence. Or it can be the cast iron skillet that I keep on my cooktop, ready to fry up a pan of corn the way my granddaddy did. Used to be every family had a cast iron skillet, just as dear and useful as a family bible.
 
I wish I could say that my seasoned cast iron skillet is an heirloom handed down through the generations.  The truth is, as a newlywed 20 years ago, I paid $20 bucks at Wal-Mart for a Lodge chicken fryer skillet - it's a little bit deeper than a standard skillet, seasoned to a midnight black patina. I keep it on the stovetop so it's handy for vegetable sautes, tomato gravy, pineapple upside-down cakes and biscuits. (I save chicken frying for my enamel cast iron Dutch oven - less splatter.) And fried corn. This is not deep-fried corn, just the Southern term for fresh corn cooked in bacon fat, thickened with flour and seasoned with cracked black pepper.
 
Now, my family loves roasted ears of corn on the cob and I've been known to turn out a corn salad or two, but if I'm going to write about what's true in my heart, I have to tell you that the best corn I ever ate and later learned to cook was the skillet fried corn turned out by my paternal grandfather in Alabama. I guess I can say that Granddaddy was an ornery old cuss - a grumpy old man who handed out Kennedy half dollars to his grandkids before settling in his recliner with a Bud in his hand, ready for an afternoon of Auburn football.
 
Well, that’s one memory, I do have another, better remembrance -  Granddaddy cooking fried corn in his cast iron skillet. Each summer the extended family would gather for a meal in the dining room of the house in Birmingham, grateful to escape the Alabama heat and ready for a feast. The oval, cherrywood dining table would be covered in a white linen cloth and loaded with the platters and bowls of Grandmother's bone china. The menu was  the same for each gathering - sliced ham, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise, potato salad, devilled eggs (Hellmann's mayonnaise being something of a religion in my family), green beans cooked with ham, and Granddaddy's skillet fried corn. The corn, creamy white and rich with bacon fat, was pretty much my favorite thing on the plate. I remember once my mom asking Granddaddy how he made his fried corn and he smiled, actually smiled, and said you gotta use white corn, what folks called field corn, and a cast iron skillet.
 
corn in skillet
 
When I eat my granddaddy's skillet fried corn, I can’t help but think of the Gudger family in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” - the sharecropper family in rural southern Alabama in 1936. Their house smelled of “corn and lard” and when I fix my own version of this dish, I remember the families whose lives depended on corn, for their livestock and themselves. My grandfather wasn’t a sharecropper, but he came from humble beginnings, and I guess he knew a thing or two about putting together a belly-filling meal on the fly.

 

skillet fried corn

Skillet Fried Corn with Bacon
I make this in summer, and I try to use a variety of corn - yellow and white. Gardeners will tell you that Silver Queen is the best, so if you see it, be sure to bring it home.

4 slices bacon

6 ears corn, shucked

½ medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

Water, about a cup, maybe more

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a cast iron skillet, fry bacon until crispy. There are two ways to accomplish this: 1. Messy: on stovetop, fry for about 20 minutes. 2. Not so messy: in 350° oven for about 25 minutes. When bacon is crispy, set bacon strips on paper towels to drain and pour bacon grease into metal container.

2. While bacon is cooking, prepare corn. Remove the corn from the cob thusly - hold cob upright and with a sharp knife held perpendicular to the cutting board, cut the kernels off one “side.” Place cob horizontally with the flat, cut side on the cutting board and slice off kernels, rotating cob. Do not discard cobs - you will use them in a minute.
 
corn cut
 
3. Place skillet over medium heat and add two tablespoons bacon grease to pan. Add onion and saute until softened. Add corn kernels, sprinkle flour over and cook for a couple of minutes. Take each cob and hold upright in the center of skillet. With the back of your knife, scrape the corn “cream” into the pan. Now you can discard the cobs. Stir.

4. Add water slowly to pan while you stir, until you get the desired consistency. I prefer thicker but some may like it thinner, like a chunky gravy.  

5. Crumble bacon and stir into pot or top individual servings.
 
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
 
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and published by Houghton Mifflin. It's a challenging read (at least for me), but if you love the South and the English language and compelling photography, it will reward.

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Thanks, Lucy - I'm looking forward to trying this. I would try now except that there is no bacon in the fridge. This is a good reason to solve the lack of such a basic ingredient.
Would it still work with turkey bacon?
This looks like good simple cooking, that lets the season shine through. Your story is a touching tribute to your granddaddy and the way history permeates a "place". I recently got my first cast-iron piece - a griddle - and think I am converted!
I just recently had fried corn freshly shucked. It was very good, especially with the thick cut pieces of bacon.
Wow. Two perfect foods combined. Or, like the old ad campaign said, t wo great tastes that taste great together. Happily rated.
Ah, Lucy -- I was "this close" to writing about my Nanny's fried corn this week. She called it stewed corn (no idea why) but it was cooked the same way. She, too, swore by a cast iron skillet and Silver Queen corn. Yum. I actually have some of her corn in my freezer right now.

Thanks for the great story and the yummy memories. :)
I'm in love with my cast iron skillets -- some inherited and some newly-purchased. They stay on my stovetop. I remember skillet corn just like this, and so terribly miss bacon when I think of how good it tasted!
This looks so wonderful, I can smell it. Can't wait to make it in my Grandmother's cast iron skillet.-R-
Lucy, lovely images in your photos and writing! I can smell the bacon frying from here.
Your skillet is "only" twenty years old, but it's already a cherished heirloom, isn't it? Iron skillets are faithful friends, archetypal and full of grace. Iron skillets have souls. They assume the patina of love and years and memories and only get better as they age. The care of one is a sacred trust.
Thanks, everyone, for visiting and commenting!

Catherine: You could use butter instead of bacon - different, but still delicious!

CatholicGirl: Let me know how turkey bacon works - I think it would be fine and certainly better for your health!

Grace: Maybe Francis will have a cast iron SKC - Cast Iron Chef, perhaps?

Readwillett: We speak the same language, friend. Mmmmm.

Gavin: Reese‘s pb cups are the perfect food, and anything with bacon comes pretty close.

Lisa: I would love to see your Nanny’s fried corn story - every story is different in the hands of the storyteller.

Bellwether: I found a book “Jack’s Skillet” by novelist Jack Butler, all about cooking with cast iron - first recipe: tomato gravy & biscuits! Re: bacon, my husband tells a story about the funeral for his 94-year old grandpa. The ladies were sitting around saying “if he hadn’t eaten bacon, he would have lived to see 100.” Of course, my husband was having fits trying to tell them that 94 with bacon was pretty good.

Christine: Lucky you, with an heirloom skillet!

Linda: Bacon frying is one of my top 3 food aromas (warm Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee brewing are the other 2).

Theresa: I love your ode to cast iron skillets - there’s a post in there! I crossed over to the dark side and purchased a seasoned cast iron skillet (I love it!).
Lucy, foods which evoke memories are particulary special, and they tell so many cultural stories. I don't use bacon or pork in my cooking, but I love corn and owning a seasoned skillet and a good Dutch owen. So, vive la difference! Rated for the memories. Bon chance. ~R
Hi Lucy, this looks tasty! But I'm almost afraid to try it--I have a feeling this is one of those recipes that's more than the sum of its parts, and needs an old cast-iron pan and the spirit of an Alabama grandpa to come out right. You're lucky to have both!
This would make a terrific Cheap Bastid dish. Thanks. Oh, and I assume that you add the kernels cut from the cob during step 3?
Fusun: You're right about cast iron - it seems to transcend time and geography. Thanks for reading!

Felicia: You gotta love corn and bacon, the prerequisites for enjoying Southern food. We've got to have a cast-iron cookoff for skc.

Walter: Sorry about the blip - I fixed it! Kinda tough being my own editor. I would be honored if this ranked as a Cheap Bastid dish - I paid double your price for corn - 40 cents an ear!

Thanks for reading and commenting (and catching my mistakes!).
I saved this to my favorites. I can't wait to make it! R
This sounds great! I am thinking of variations, like chorizo. Hmmm...
R~ Sounds incredible! I just swallowed a whole mouthful of saliva
Libmomrn: Thanks for reading! Let me know how it turns out!

Librarienne: Chorizo sounds great! Please write and let me know if you try that!

Kay Mc: Careful, don't hurt yourself!

Thanks, everyone for visiting and commenting!
This sounds excellent, and, as usual, great writing. In addition to enjoying your stories, I am always impressed by the clarity of your directions.