I Know it’s Corny!
By Patrick F. Cannon
During these bleak days, when America seems to be tottering a bit, it would be well not to lose sight of the things that made us great – and still reverberate around the world.
Mass production – starting with the assembly line deconstruction of livestock in the stockyards of Chicago and perfected by Henry Ford in the assembly lines of Detroit – transformed Capitalism and led eventually to a dramatic reduction in abject poverty around the world. And who would deny that the personal computer and cell phone – both American innovations – have profoundly changed the way the world thinks and works.
Our Republic – though it has struggled from time to time – is the longest surviving in the world. From 1941 to 1945, we fought a war that saved the world from tyrannies that had killed tens of millions of innocents and would have killed tens of millions more. We have produced scientists whose genius has earned them more Nobel Prizes than any other nation.
Yet, with all of these accomplishments, it may be in these culinary staples that our greatest contributions lie – the tomato and sweet corn. While neither plant is native to the United States — corn having originated in Mexico, and the tomato in South and Central America – it is here that our agricultural genius has permitted them to reach their edible peak. While the arrogant Europeans refuse to embrace sweet corn, Italians concede that the unification of their country only became possible when all parts of the peninsula embraced the tomato. The explorer who introduced the scarlet marvel to Italy, Salvatore Pomodoro, has been honored with statues throughout the country.
Mexico was an early adopter of both. Its now internationally-famous cuisine depends almost entirely on corn-based tortillas and tamales; and the tomato-based salsa that graces most of its hot and spicy dishes. Is it any wonder that they executed the French-backed Emperor Maximilian I in 1867, after he tried to introduce asparagus, green beans and pate de foie gras into their diets?
For reasons that only make sense to themselves, the word “corn” in England refers not to the golden ears that make the mouth water, but to any pedestrian grain, even oats. Although one finds a grilled half tomato on many English breakfast plates, they are sad mealy things best left uneaten. Here, your local farmer’s market will offer the noble fruit – for such it is – in all shapes, sizes and colors. Once available only in red, one can now find not only red in all its many shades, but yellow, orange and purple (and even green, if your taste runs to fried green tomatoes).
Sweet corn must not be confused with the varieties that feed our livestock; produce fine cooking oil; sweeten our soft drinks and syrups; produce corn bread or mush; or even fuel our cars, trucks and tractors. Unlike them, sweet corn is tender, sweet and mostly golden (white kernels are not unknown).
There can be no better meal – not even in Paris or Rome – to equal a grilled prime steak, a sliced tomato, and an ear of corn. The tomato might be enhanced with a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of salt. As to the corn, three minutes only in boiling water produces perfection. While some are happy to eat it unadorned, I prefer to slather the steaming ear with butter, adding salt and pepper to taste. Ambrosia isn’t adequate to describe the result!
But you must make haste. I confess I should have written this a month ago. Now, in early September, the sweet corn season has only a couple of weeks to run. Vine-ripened tomatoes will be available for several more weeks, unless we have an early frost. We get our corn and tomatoes at the Oak Park (IL) Farmer’s Market. But such markets exist almost everywhere these days; and farm stands still survive in the hinterlands. But need I tell you that there’s not a moment to lose?
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon