Peaceable Man Files #16: In Praise of Sweet Corn and the Farmers Who Grow It
Random musings on my gypsy existence at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.
It’s mid-August, the dog days of summer, and that means it’s prime season for one of my favorite summer pastimes.
No, I’m not talking about lying on the beach, or going camping, or taking the kayaks out on the lake—although I greatly enjoy all those wonderful summer activities.
I’m talking about taking a drive through the countryside in search of a dozen ears of freshly picked sweet corn.
Not just any sweet corn, mind you. I’m looking for that super-sweet, white-kernelled variety known as Silver Queen. And I won’t buy it from a grocery store. It must be from a roadside stand, direct from the local farm, and ideally picked that day.
Yes, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to corn on the cob. I blame it on my father, who spoiled me and my siblings with the sweet corn he grew on our little farm in Hatfield Township where we grew up. My father was raised on a dairy farm, and though he made his living as an electrical engineer, he was a farmer at heart who loved nothing better than tending his beloved vegetable garden. That garden, which at its prime took up a couple acres of our six-acre farmette, was in many ways the beating heart of summer at our farmstead. From May to early October, life revolved around plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and eating the fruits of that garden. We didn’t have the money to take expensive vacations, but our lives were bountiful nonetheless, and the garden was a big part of that.
The pride and joy of our father’s garden was the sweet corn that he grew for the table and for selling at our little roadside stand. Over the years, he tried planting different varieties of sweet corn—white, yellow, bicolor—but always he kept coming back to his tried-and-true variety of Silver Queen white corn. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Silver Queen sweet corn was a bit of a phenomenon. Developed by researchers at Rogers Brothers Seed Co. in Idaho in the early 1960s, Silver Queen corn had, in a span of a decade, and without any kind of mass-market “Got Milk?” kind of advertising campaign, become the most popular and commonly sold variety of sweet corn up and down the east coast.
In our area of Montgomery County, the Kerr farmstand on Trewigtown Road was known as a Silver Queen shop. Our father’s corn was so darn good, so crunchy and sweet, that people would travel for miles to buy it from us year after year after year. We’d pick the corn first thing in the morning and put it out on the table until it was gone, at which point we’d have to turn disappointed customers away or else interest them in the tomatoes, string beans, cantaloupes, or other vegetables we were selling (equally scrumptious, by the way).
Dad planted multiple crops of Silver Queen through the season so that we had corn continuously from late July through early October. What corn didn’t get eaten at the table or sold at the farmstand was flash blanched in boiling water by our enterprising mother and cut off the cob to be frozen for meals during the winter.
What feasts we had with that corn! I’m one of six children, so it was not unusual for us to go through a couple dozen ears at dinner. The thing about corn, Dad often reminded us, was that it quickly turned into starch after it was picked, so it was important to eat it within a day or two of it being picked. After that, it lost its nutritional value and much of its taste and texture as well.
Corn required proper cooking as well. The best method was to steam it for about three minutes in a pot of boiling water. Let the corn boil for too long and it gets tough and stringy, and there was nothing worse in my father’s book than tough corn. Dad was a tough critic when it came to sweet corn. On those rare occasions when we had storebought corn for dinner, which was usually when we were away from home, he was not shy about calling out the corn’s deficiencies. “Oh, that’s tough,” he’d say, his face registering his disapproval. “This corn's got no taste. Like eating cardboard.”
But when done right—when it was fresh-picked from the field, shucked and cleaned to get off the silk, boiled for three minutes until the ears took on just a hint of golden yellow, then plucked from the pot onto the plate and slathered with butter and seasoned with a little salt and pepper—well, there’s nothing better.
Which is why I was so happy this past week, while up at my cabin in the Endless Mountains, to come across Shipsky’s farmstand. I discovered it, as often happens with this kind of thing, through word of mouth. I stopped in at the general store in the little town of Clifford and the woman who runs the store recommended it to me.
“If you like sweet corn,” she said, “you ought to try Shipsky’s. Best corn around. Dick’s wife passed away last year and his health isn’t so good, but God bless his heart—he still sits there all day at that stand selling Silver Queen corn.”
Silver Queen? Did she say Silver Queen?
I rushed off and found the roadside stand a mile outside of town. There was old Dick Shipsky, perched in his wheelchair behind a wooden stand filled with ears of sweet corn. Next to the stand were bags of additional corn to replenish the supply on the table.
“Is this fresh picked?” I asked him.
“Sure is,” Dick replied. “The boys just brought it in an hour ago from the field.”
“That’s all I plant,” he confirmed.
The corn went for a dozen ears for $6.50, or six for $3.50. Since it was just myself, I bought a half dozen ears, leaving the money and a tip in the plastic box filled with bills and coins. I remembered the days when we sold a dozen ears of corn at our roadside stand for a dollar fifty. But that was forty years ago, and even then, a dollar-fifty did not seem like a lot of money for all the work that went into growing the corn.
I put the ears in a bag and looked around at the barn, the silo, the equipment, the cows milling in the field. I love old farms. I didn’t want to leave.
“Are those dairy cows?” I asked Dick. I knew that dairy farmers in the area were closing up shop, unable to compete with the mega-milk producers. The farmer who works my fields switched to beef cows a number of years ago because, he said, the economics of dairy farming just didn’t make sense any longer.
Dick nodded and told me that he was the last remaining active dairy farmer in Clifford Township. He and his sons managed a herd of a hundred fifty head of cows.
“I’ve been doing this for fifty years,” he said proudly.
A friend was keeping Dick company at his stand, and as I stood there with my bag of corn, Dick started telling us the story of how he had come into his dairy farm a half century earlier. He’d been offered the place, along with the herd and equipment, for eighteen thousand dollars, but he didn’t have eighteen dollars in the bank at the time, so he went to the local community bank for a loan, and the president of the bank came out to visit the property and told Dick not to worry, the money would be in his account in the morning.
The following morning, lo and behold, the money was there. It had been a good deal all around, Dick said. Over the past forty years, he estimated he’d paid more than four hundred grand in interest to the bank, and he, in turn, had been able to raise his family by tending dairy cows and growing sweet corn.
I could have listened to old Dick for another hour, but more customers were arriving for corn, so I thanked him and took my prize home. I had three ears that evening and the rest the next day, and I don’t think my late father will mind me saying that Shipsky’s Silver Queen corn is every bit as sweet and crisp as the corn we had growing up on our little farm in Hatfield Township.
As I ate the corn, four rows at a time, typewriter style, which to me is the only true method of eating corn on the cob, I could hear my father purring in satisfaction as he bit into this wonderful corn, giving it his stamp of approval.
“Now that,” he would say, “is good corn."