A distinctive American custom


It seems to me that a wide assortment of “American” products, music and all kinds of stuff have shown up around the world – jeans, jazz, the golden Arches, the blues, baseball, basketball, and even bourbon whiskey come quickly to mind.

There is a distinctive American custom, however, that has not caught on anywhere else in the world – eating corn on the cob. Yep, the practice of gnawing those kernels directly off the cob appears to be limited to the USA – although I’m not sure about some parts of Canada. I do know that I’ve not seen it in the countries I’ve visited in the Far East, Middle East, and northern and southern Europe, and central America.

Corn and corn products provide basic foods in a number of countries around the world so it isn’t corn itself – it’s the characteristic manner we elect to consume it that sets us apart. Kinda reminds me of a story I heard many years ago about an English tourist who commented to a Midwesterner about the huge amount of corn we grow and wondered what we did with all of it. “Well,” the Midwesterner replied, “We eat as much as we can and what we can’t, we can.” Upon returning home the English tourist told his friends about the huge fields of “maize” under cultivation and how Americans consume as much as possible and put the remainder into tins. Figure something got lost in the translation?

One reason this particular institution hasn’t spread elsewhere is that having fresh corn is essential and the varieties of corn developed for table use don’t retain freshness very long. Folks who know about such things tell us “sweet corn,” once picked, begins a chemical change that degrades both taste and tenderness.

Consequently this type of corn should be eaten or processed by canning or freezing as soon as possible once it’s harvested. That’s why corn sold from the back of a pickup truck or a roadside stand is considered superior to that in grocery stores – it’s reckoned to be fresher.

Shipping “corn in the husk” over some distance, even when kept moist and under refrigeration, still results in a less tasty and tougher product – with the difference being about the same as that between “real” garden-grown tomatoes and those “cardboard” ones often sold in grocery stores. And so “eating corn on the cob” is pretty well limited to where it’s grown – and that’s only in this country.

When I was a youngster “corn on the cob” was also known as “roastin’ ears” – referring to how the corn was cooked. The process was to soak the ears, still in the husk, in cold water and then to place them in or on hot coals of an open fire-rotating them occasionally until the outer husk was slightly browned. The ears were then retrieved; the husks pulled down to form a kind of natural handle; butter, salt, and perhaps pepper applied; – and the corn was ready for consumption. Today this procedure may use charcoal or gas grills but the result is the same. By the way, the sometimes troublesome “corn silk” comes right off with the husk.

A more common cooking method, particularly for larger batches, is to trim both ends of the cobs, remove the husk and “silk”, and plunge the ears into boiling unsalted water. According to those considered experts on this subject corn is easily overcooked so once the water comes back to a boil, perhaps 3-4 minutes, the ears should be immediately removed from the water – perfectly cooked. Leaving the ears in the water, a common error, makes them tough.

For just the two of us I prefer wrapping each trimmed, husked, and “desilked” ear in a sopping wet paper towel and then in wax paper. I then “nuke” them at full power for about four or five minutes. Quick, easy, and effective.

When “eatin” time” comes I have observed two basic techniques of gobbling up the butter drenched kernels. The most common is what I call the “typewriter” approach. (Does anyone remember the typewriter?) The eater starts at one end of the cob, chomping on several rows at a time, continues to the other end, then rotates the cob and repeats the process. The “circular” technique involves starting at one end of the cob by taking a bite of several rows, rotating the cob, taking another bite and repeating until a circle of kernels has been eaten. Consecutive circles are devoured until the entire cob is eaten clean. Take your pick – both ways are fine.

Well, there you have it – a truly distinctive American custom – one that permits or even demands having our elbows on the table – an otherwise disgraceful breach of etiquette. But no one really cares about etiquette when enjoying such a delicious feast. At least that’s how it seems to me.


By Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected].

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