Kernels were key to a childhood in Iowa

August 21, 2002|By Carrie Lyle | Carrie Lyle,SUN STAFF

The red metal wagon clattered behind my younger sister Katie and me as we made our way back from the cornfield at the end of our street. Our feet, leathery from running around barefoot all summer, slapped the warm concrete sidewalk, and the ears of corn we had just picked rolled from side to side in the wagon.

"Look, Mom," Katie yelled, racing with me up our driveway. "We found some corn for dinner!"

Mom looked down into our expectant faces, trying not to laugh. We had brought home field corn, ears with hard kernels meant for farm animals.

Although this was Iowa, where corn is king, my sister and I were city girls who didn't know the difference. Until we had found that cornfield on the edge of town, the closest we had gotten to agriculture was looking out the school-bus window at pastures and fields of soybeans and waving cornstalks.

As kids, Katie and I would fight for the privilege of shucking corn. It was the first task our mother gave us when we started asking to help out in the kitchen. I'd take a kitchen chair through the sliding-glass door onto the back porch and rip the husks into a paper bag at my feet. It was so satisfying to hear the squeak and tear of the husk pulling away from the cob. The husks smelled musty and sweet, like the woods after it rains, and sometimes I would take a silky chunk of the tassel and rub it on my upper lip to feel how soft it was.

I always wished that corn could be a main dish rather than a side dish. I was a finicky eater. I would hide chunks of my mother's meatloaf -- a vile mixture of ground beef, egg-sodden saltine crackers, and peppers -- in my mashed potatoes. I would theatrically hold my nose and gag when forced to eat my frozen-vegetable medley. But corn -- I was always hungry for fresh corn on the cob.

In Iowa, it's a sin to buy corn from the grocery store. Why would anyone, when it's possible to buy corn at a roadside stand or farmers' market within hours of it being picked? And while in Maryland it's all about the tender white kernels of the Silver Queen, the choice ears in Iowa are the sweet and buttery ears with white and yellow kernels.

The corn goes by several names -- Peaches and Cream, Butter and Sugar, Honey and Cream -- and the ears are so good in themselves that they can be eaten without adornment. No spices, no fancy herbed dressings, just a tad of butter and maybe a sprinkle of salt and you're ready to chomp.

I'd start by trying to eat it kernel by kernel, turning the cob lengthwise to pop the juicy kernels one by one in my mouth. After a few minutes, though, I'd lose all control and take a big bite. Sometimes Katie and I would race using the time-honored typewriter method. We held our heads still and ran the cob across our mouths as we ate, then yelled "Ding!" when we reached the end.

My family would cook out at least a couple of times a week, sometimes on our back porch, sometimes at our grandparents' house. Grandpa would fire up the grill for hamburgers and hot dogs while Grandma boiled ears of corn inside. Then the whole family would sit down together at their wobbly picnic table under the apple tree. Katie and I loved eating in Grandma's back yard, because she'd let us throw the corncobs over our shoulders when we were done for the birds and squirrels to finish off.

Now that I've left my home state, I can't help but feel a little homesick whenever I bite into an ear of corn. I miss those summer feasts, surrounded by family. That's why, when I visited Iowa this summer, I asked Grandma if we could cook out.

Katie -- who goes by Kate now -- and her husband, Albert, and their four children were among those who came. When Grandma brought out a paper plate heaped with steaming ears of corn, we sat down at the old picnic table to begin our feast.

Katie and I managed to eat our corn like grown-ups. But I had to smile when I saw my nieces, Kayla, 5, and Sierra, 4, chomping on their ears typewriter-style.

"Ding!"

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