Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tasty summer

For the most part I am not a big fan of summer. This is not to say that the idea of summer isn't appealing to me, because it surely is: all the beautiful colors, the sound of the cicadas, the fresh, home-grown vegetables, the sweet seasonal fruit, the never-ending supply of fresh cut flowers...

Bliss, yes?

And then there is the heat and humidity.

Bliss? No.

Somehow I managed to put my disdain for the weather aside these past two days and really enjoy summer. The main event this weekend was my Uncle Paul's fresh sweet corn. I realize that I risk offending many by saying so, but fresh Indiana sweet corn really is the very best on Earth. It is a double-edged sword, knowing what really good corn tastes like because once you've had it, you just can't stomach what the rest of the world eats. You know, that stuff they've got stacked up in the supermarkets or -- even worse -- what you get in the freezer case [shudder]. So it's a darn good thing that I've got my Uncle Paul in my corner, who puts out "a few rows" every year to share with family & friends.

"A few rows" is roughly equivalent to the size of my yard, FYI.

But in my world, sweet corn is more than just a tasty treat. This annual ritual is steeped in memories and traditions and, probably, a little bit of pride. It starts when we get The Call from Aunt Judy letting us know that the corn is ready. We truck down to Hope and after a bit of visiting head out to the corn patch to pull as much as we think we can handle (and then some). My uncle is a corn-pulling machine who seems to take great delight it filling our bags to the brim -- and then going back for more. After he's convinced that we have all that we need (and trust me, it takes a lot of convincing) we head back to the house for a little more visiting, which always ends with the invitation to "come back and see us." We always do.

Once we're back home the real work begins: Shucking, blanching, shocking, cutting, storing, and freezing. It sounds easy, and it isn't difficult, but a whole winter's worth of corn is a lot of work. By the end it I'm always tired and a little bit sore and overwhelmed by the mess and the dirty dishes. But the best part really is in the work, because this is when I get to think about all of the other years spent doing these very same things. Dad always helped pull and then shucked, going to great pains to get rid of nearly every last strand of silk. Being an engineer he was almost obsessed with counting the dozens as they were through, trying to figure out (every year) how many ears were going into each quart.

Then things moved inside, where Mom had her huge canning pots filled with boiling water and her sink filled with ice water, so she could blanch and shock in a futile effort to keep up with Dad. Next she got out her corn cutter & creamer, a barbaric looking device intended to both cut off the kernels and extract the cream, all in one pass. I remember the first time I tried to help Mom with this... and let's just say she was amused. An expert I wasn't. But then again she had a few years on me and after a few trial ears I wasn't doing so bad myself.

Ironically (or not), although you would think we had seen enough sweet corn to last us until next summer, we always had fresh corn for dinner that night -- just as we did yesterday. One of the funniest memories I have of Mom was an evening after putting up corn, and she ate what seemed like a half-dozen ears just herself, with butter dripping down her chin and wrists, content beyond measure. The conversation that night, just like every other year, always turned back to Mom marveling at how so many people ate such bad corn, and how they never would again if they had ever tasted sweet corn as good as this.

Sara was too small this year for much more than pulling and shucking an ear or two, but the tradition will go on. Rob has added his own twists, and over time Sara will graduate to helping with the blanching and shocking and cutting. As for me, I will always spend this one day a year being so grateful for the generosity of my family, so exhausted by the effort, and so happy to spend a few hours dwelling in the past with memories of my parents who instilled in me the sense that, somehow, this was important.

Truth be told, I was sort of dreading yesterday, with all of the work and the heat and the running around. But when it was all said and done, it really was one of the best days. I spent time with some of the people I love the most, lived out one of our family rituals, and got to remember a few of my fondest memories of Mom and Dad. And yeah, the corn was pretty fantastic too.

This is how I always imagine our lives to be: Full and happy, with memories both recalled and created. Come next February, when it is cold and grey and we are anxious for Spring, I will pull out some of this sweet corn and remember today and the time spent with those who helped make it such a great one.

I'm already looking forward to next year.

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