RoundingDown

sweetcorn
There was a time, now long past, when early September brought sweet corn to harvest. Boiling pots of water welcomed golden yellow ears. Fresh cubes of butter wore a trough mark where hot ears had been dredged through. Grins stretched from ear to ear and even an eight year old could gnaw three or four down to cob and still have room for a quarter of a watermelon, consumed primarily for the spitting seeds.

In recent years, available corn has hardly resembled the stuff we once so treasured, though it was commonplace. In Maryland, they called this white stuff sweet corn. Silver Queen, they called it. They could have called it tasteless and sweet, tough or mysterious, but I could not recognize it as corn. A successful hybridization but an utterly failed food, suitable only for compost or silage.

Earlier this year, I found a supplier here in Colorado who could provide halfway corn, a combination of yellow and white kernels which, if eaten blindfolded, approached the flavor and texture of the genuine article. I ate my share of that while pining after what my palate long ago came to know as real corn. This speckled stuff worked as a substitute but it was clearly standing in for the real thing.

Yesterday, The Muse and I stopped by On The Vine On Richmond, a farm market off Horsetooth Boulevard in Fort Collins. Though this place sits eighty miles from our new place, we’d bought fresh garlic there in late July on a preliminary tour of the North Platte Valley and had planned to return for more. We had other business in Fort Collins, which made this place conveniently located. Yes, they had plenty of fresh garlic still in the shed and I found twenty heads of German Red waiting patiently for my return. The Muse discovered some terrific-looking fresh okra. I trailed one of the owners out into the field where she cut some fresh tarragon for me.

As we were leaving, she mentioned that they had some freshly-picked sweet corn. Organic. Non-GMO. “How long has that been off the stalk?” she asked her husband. “Fifteen minutes?”

“Hardly that,” he replied.

We quickly consented to a half dozen ears, which I threw into the ice chest for the return trip. While she weighed out the garlic and okra, the owner confided her philosophy to us. Round down. The garlic weighed in at $47.50, but she called it forty five. The okra was likewise quoted down to a rounder number. The tarragon, too. Same story with the corn.

“We were selling at the farmers’ market in town,” she reported, “but people would flit from stall to stall looking for the best deals. It was so noisy and crowded that we couldn’t think straight, let alone have a decent conversation. We’d always display more than we sold and we couldn’t bear to sell the stuff that had been laying out all morning, so we threw an awful lot away. Here, we can keep delicate stuff in the cooler and chat with people who stop by.”

This explains why we frequent farm stands. A different kind of economy thrives there, one more suitable to civilization. I might take a deep intake of breath when I realize that I’m paying two bucks for a head of garlic without at first recognizing that I freely consented to drive a hundred and fifty miles for that privilege. Garlic of that quality and that particular kind is unavailable at any price anywhere else. The price is the least important part of the transaction.

The corn, I learned later while shucking, was the first genuine article I’d seen in many, many decades. Yellow. Smallish ears. Sweet without being starchy. It boiled up quickly and, for me, qualified as a fine first course. I ate my three ears before I even thought about eating anything else. Perfectly tender. Almost not quite a substance, but with clear flavor. Delicate without stumbling into wussy. I would willingly, readily turn around and drive another hundred and fifty miles for another load. I should have bought a couple of dozen ears when I had the chance, but I was rounding down.

Corn, like so many other delicacies, spends most of its time in memory, not on the palate, and should. Real corn’s as special as Christmas and nearly as rare. It’s there for appreciation, not saturation. And apparently not for hybridization, either, for its natively delicate balance disappears when improved for sweetness, ship-ability, size, or even flavor. It was fine as it was before it became a commodity, before the bargaining economy insisted it should be readily available, cheap, and no-longer simply seasonal.

In the supermarket last week, I watched as a middle-aged woman helped a much older man (her father, I supposed) pick through a pile of desiccated sweet corn. Husks crispening in the dry air, not even any beneficent wet burlap moistening the ears, I imagined the corn inside closer to pop corn than anything palatable off the cob. I pictured the old man quietly cursing in despair at his fate, for judging by his age, he must surely have had many more years than I carry tuning his palate to the texture, flavor, and aroma of real corn, only to be subjected to what was probably speckled halfway corn in his golden years. A rounded down reward, indeed.

Even in heaven, sweet corn rarely makes it on the menu and is widely appreciated for its infrequent appearances. Hogs might deserve a diet of corn, for their lives seem short and brutish enough to warrant this reward, but our lives stretch long and circuitous in comparison. We receive many choices. We should eat to excess whatever’s in season but dare not even try to extend those seasons too far beyond their natural boundaries. Corn season is blissfully short. For me, it’s been punctuated with long, tacit decades between servings, and the experience seems only better for the long absence. If I never again find real sweet corn, I will carry the distinction of still knowing how to make the distinction, which might have been the purpose of my earlier exposure, anyway.

This marks the point in the essay when I’m supposed to rail against the industrialization of our food sources, but I’m gonna sidestep that opportunity. The industrialized food machine hardly touches me and I retain many choices. Those without taste couldn’t care less where their grub was sourced. Those with it could hardly care more. We quite willingly drive a hundred and fifty miles to put ourselves into places where we might stumble upon the most marvelous produce. Sometimes we return from even these forays with empty baskets or disappointing results, and we know just whom to blame. We blame our palates, forged in innocence and nourished in distance from the genuine. We can recognize the real thing when we see it and keep on driving until we do see it.

Like most great blessings, this one’s about ninety percent curse but also it’s own curious reward. I can eat almost anything but I only savor what I can love. There were times, though, between my innocent first exposures and now, when I somehow lost interest in distinguishing between shit and Shinola. I admit how easy it was to acquiesce when I lived in food deserts, to accept some fate some chemist had envisioned for me rather than a destiny of my own choosing. These times were gratefully brief but they taught me something I now consider rather important, perhaps essential.

I can handle my hunger. I often choose not to eat anything when I cannot find anything I readily recognize as nourishing. I could drive by a hundred, maybe a thousand McDonalds’ before ever once stopping in to satisfy mere hunger. Hunger’s cheap and common and easily satisfied by almost anything, but I don’t so much feel hunger now; certainly not of the conventional kind. I do not snack between meals and I often extend meal time for hours after the prescribed hour. I might cook up a supper then only nibble around its edges. Food for me has become more relationship than substance. I greedily purchase what I’ve loved before then combine those items with others I’ve had similar relationships with, rather like hosting a party between friends who know me well but have not yet met each other. I convene more than cook or consume. I fancy myself the champion of the under appreciated ingredient, and serve my role primarily by appreciating their presence and introducing them to others; and others to them.

At lunch yesterday, I commented to the waiter that the duck noodle soup was the best I’ve ever had anywhere. He readily agreed. “I ate that for both lunch and dinner three times last week,” he admitted, “but during that last dinner, I realized that I could not live on a diet of just the very best. I needed some variety to fully appreciate it, so now I’m back to acknowledging it’s the very best dish on the menu, but only ordering it for myself once in a while.” He had rounded down.

I figured he was passing some rare insight to me. At table, we had just been discussing how we were probably always surrounded by life-changing insights which we are gratefully unable to see, except rarely. A daily diet can’t qualify as rare. Even the once rare loses its gilding in frequent repetition. Corn’s like that for me. My relatives who live in the middle of fields of corn might disagree with me, for corn’s a staple of their late summer diet. I live a long way between corn stalks, the better to savor what so rarely comes my way. I feel fortunate to find myself surrounded by so very many savories, though. I can do-si-do through them, choosing something different and unique every day without ever wearing the shine off of a single one.

By the time I find corn again, I figure I’ll be rested and ready to repeat the rapture. I will have accumulated enough trail dust to enable me to fully appreciate the dunking. I will not founder on my good fortune but savor it in a small portion, satisfied. Rounding down.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved















blog comments powered by Disqus