How Did Corn Get So Sweet?

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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

Corn, like most vegetables, has been hybridized for hundreds of years. These days the varieties have got names like Luscious, Trinity, Frisky, Mystique, and Sugar Buns. If you're concerned about genetically modified (GM) crops, many of the big seed companies and growers have pledged not to develop GM strains. And I'm told farmstand and supermarket GM corn is not even being developed.

Most of the corn we're buying at farmstands is called Super Sweet. It's actually so sweet we recently committed what would previously have been a sin: we ate day-old corn on the cob instead of saving it for corn pudding. We could hardly tell it wasn't fresh picked. Corn pudding, by the way, is a fabulous, easy thing to make with leftovers, but I digress. I can't remember when I ate less than four ears at a meal, and eight to 10 are not unheard of. It's frustrating going to see friends for dinner and eating only one or two. Sadly, etiquette dictates moderation. However, I'm not above polishing off three or four cold ones in the kitchen while everyone else is eating dessert.

But last year, while I was happily munching my fifth ear, my wife pointed out that the corn is just sweet these days—the flavor has lost its complexity. I paused long enough to realize she was right. There's no subtlety anymore, no notes of raspberries, cherries, or cinnamon. Actually, I've never tasted anything but corn in my corn. But there is something missing. It's tasting less like corn and more like sugar. Then it dawned on me: for the first time in my life, I had actually passed up eating corn for lunch and dinner during the season. And, I rarely eat a dozen ears any more, except for these first few weeks when my memories are more powerful than my taste buds.

He also told me about that before Super Sweet there was Sugary Enhanced (SE+), which is still available. That's
what Bruno's Temptation was.

I have tasted real corn flavor a few times so far this year, but it's hit-or-miss. At Lenny Bruno Farm in Manorville, their Temptation was sweet and very tasty. (For you folks blasting to the Hamptons, it's just 100 yards off the Long Island Expressway at exit 69.) Teresa Bruno, who runs the stand, agrees that the flavor has been compromised. But few people have mentioned it to her and they'll still be going with Super Sweet varieties as the season progresses. "Super Sweet doesn't come up early," she said.

I also finally found a delicious organic corn, though the name, XXS, doesn't sound very back-to-nature-ish. Anthony and Marie Panarello, from Natural Earth Farms in Calverton, are selling at the Eastport Farmers Market and defying common wisdom, which is that you can't grow corn organically. It's too difficult. They're trying to beat the odds by planting only three acres, a half acre at time, and keeping a sharp eye out for worms. They, too, plant multiple varieties during the season. "I just don't know which will taste good or which will give us problems," Anthony told me.

As you can see, I'm full of hope. I called Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, suppliers to big commercial farmers, farmstands, and home growers. It turns out Super Sweet is actually a technical classification (SH2), not just a marketing term. They were originally bred for travel: grown in Florida, trucked north, and sold in supermarkets before local corn comes up. Now, almost everyone is growing it. They'll stay sweet for a week on a truck or in your fridge.

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Roger Sherman

Ben Wilcox, a sales rep at Johnny's, farmed for years. He'd get up before daybreak, get soaked picking corn in the dew, and set up at the Camden Farmers' Market. Invariably, he said, "someone would ask if the corn would last until next Tuesday. I wanted to jump over the table and grab it back, saying, 'You don't deserve to have this corn.'" He fulfilled his part of the bargain. He felt that person should go home, shuck it, eat it right away, and appreciate real corn flavor.

He also told me about that before Super Sweet there was Sugary Enhanced (SE+), which is still available. That's what Bruno's Temptation was. Sugary Enhanced was the first sweet corn and has some real corn flavor. But eat it right away or it'll taste starchy tomorrow. And, finally, it appears my quest for sweetness and flavor is beginning to be answered. There's a whole new corn classification called SYN or Synergistic. It's a melding of Super Sweet and Sugary Enhanced kernels. How they get the two to sit next to each other on the cob is beyond me. I haven't been able to find it yet, but it sounds like we're heading in the right direction.

I'm going to be requesting it, so perhaps the farmers will do the same of the seed companies, who will report to the scientists to please put more of those tasty flavors back in. Then, I can go back to the future where my corn will be sweet and tasty. Meals are ending too quickly these days.

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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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