How Did Corn Get So Sweet?

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fairfaxcounty/flickr


I'm in corn heaven. It's July and that means there's corn at almost every meal at our cottage on Long Island. I remember when we used to have to wait until August for the good stuff, and by early September it was tasting like horse feed. Now, it's a world of hybrids. Corn comes up earlier, lasts a month longer, and is still sweet in early fall.

The picking no longer begins when the stalks are as high as an elephant's eye either. That's all fine, but what I don't understand is Riverhead corn. The first local corn is always from Riverhead, which is barely 20 miles west of East Hampton, where I ate my fill for many summers. At least that's where they said it was from at all the farmstands. Of course, we never believed them. After all, one only had to look at the barely knee-high corn growing all over the East End, not a tassel in sight. We'd laugh and give each other knowing looks—this stuff's from New Jersey. Most of the time we turned up our noses and passed it by. It simply couldn't be fresh-picked if it traveled on the Long Island Expressway.

I had a rude awakening when we moved to the non-trendy pre-Hamptons, East Moriches, a lovely town just a stone's throw from Riverhead. When I started seeing local corn signs right after the Fourth of July, I headed to Riverhead to investigate. I stopped at a farmstand located in the middle of a cornfield. Low and behold, there were rows of beautiful, ready-to-eat corn stretching to the horizon. The stalks were barely five feet tall, a baby elephant's eye level. But even 15 minutes away, the corn in the fields was not ready. Riverhead must have an amazing microclimate. Other produce—like strawberries, peaches, and tomatoes—ripen earlier there, too. Perhaps it's the location: two miles south of Long Island Sound, six miles north of the Atlantic Ocean, a few yards from Great Peconic Bay.

I've been eating Long Island corn for 20 summers and I've never tasted anything better. Corn season used to be an eating contest. We'd buy from a different farm stand each day and debate which was best: Silver Queen, bi-color, Butter and Sugar. "Bistrian's is always the finest, though they slipped for a year or two." "No, it's Round Swamp." "Hardscrabble, no question about it, they only sell what they grow themselves."

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Roger Sherman

I'm very picky. If corn is cold, it's been in a cooler overnight. That's not for me. I look at the stems for freshness. Then I give the ear a little squeeze at the top. If the kernels pop, it's fresh. And as the sign says, "Don't pre-shuck." We shuck (what a great word) immediately before boiling-—I'm not a steamer¬—then drop it in for just four minutes (better undercooked than overcooked), enough time to let the starches turn to sugar. It's sweet and crisp. And, that doesn't mean turn the heat off and leave it in the water when it's done. All the sweetness will disappear, and the corn will get mushy.

I think I inherited my corn Jones from my grandmother, who had a big garden at her house in New Milford, Connecticut. We weren't allowed to pick until the water was boiling in the pot. But corn doesn't grow in our backyard these days. We'd have to pull up all the tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, herbs, and fill in the pool for me to get enough. And now that duck farms have all but disappeared and mansions are sprouting from potato fields, Long Island is losing its identity. Wouldn't corn on license plates create some much-needed buzz?

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Roger Sherman is a documentary filmmaker and photographer. His most recent film, The Restaurateur, is about Danny Meyer's struggle to open a world class restaurant. His photography has appeared in Saveur, Town & Country, Newsweek, and Budget Travel magazines.

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