Some thoughts about sweet corn

By Bill Taylor

It seems to me that this time of year has long provided a truly pleasurable experience – that of eating corn on the cob. Oh, we can get corn still in the husk starting late in the spring, shipped in refrigerated from Florida or wherever, but it isn’t the same as freshly picked. You see, “sweet corn,” as it is officially known, has a relatively high sugar content compared to other types of corn.

What happens to sweet corn once it’s picked is a change starts taking place that converts its sugar to starch. Thus, “sweet corn” stores poorly and must be eaten fresh, canned, or frozen, before the kernels become tough and starchy. That’s what happens to sweet corn shipped in from afar or stored locally for some days.

I can recall how, as a youngster some three quarters of a century or so ago, we looked forward to the time sweet corn, also known as “roastin’ ears”, “came in” as we used to say. Dad would bring home a big bag filled with ears covered with dark green husks – the careful removal of which along with the “silk” was the job for us youngsters. I don’t know where he got the corn from – a local farmer or produce store – but he was confident it had been picked that same day.

Mom boiled the ears in a big pot of water immediately before our evening meal and she put them on the table just as we sat down because she didn’t want them to get cold. The technique we used to “butter” the ears (actually with margarine because we rarely had butter) was to take a piece of bread, put a chunk of margarine on it, then use it as a “wipe” on an ear.

Depending on how big the piece of bread was and how much margarine we used, that “wipe” could handle a couple of ears – and then we would eat the bread. Oh, we got kinda messy holding those buttery ears with our hands, but that didn’t matter. When served with fresh garden tomatoes, that corn was a feast for a king. Ah, wonderful memories of yesteryear.

We continued the practice of boiling the corn and using bread wipes while we had family at home, but no longer do so with just the two of us. These days, after removing the husk and silk and trimming the ends, I wrap each ear in a water soaked paper towel, then in wax paper, and microwave them using the “potato” setting. It’s quick, easy, and does a nice job of cooking the corn. In place of the bread wipes we now use a plastic gadget which holds a half stick of butter and is specifically designed to apply butter to corn on the cob. We also use those plastic dohickies with small metal prongs to hold the corn while we’re eating it. Yep, today, it’s lots easier and not nearly as messy to enjoy corn on the cob.

I understand the term “roastin’ ears” came from the practice of soaking the ears, still in the husk, in water, then putting them in a fire to cook. For a number of years, our church did something similar by holding an annual “corn roast” courtesy of one of our members, a farmer, who hosted the event. The freshly picked corn, still in the husk and well soaked in water, was placed on grills. Each ear was turned to ensure even cooking and when the husk was slightly charred, the ears were considered done and removed from the grill. The husk was then peeled back and used as a natural “holder” for the corn. Add butter, salt and pepper, Mm, delicious!

The key to having corn on the cob has always been using fresh corn. We used to get ours from roadside stands or the back of a pickup truck loaded with those dark green husked ears because we found that corn was fresh. Those sources have largely disappeared although there is one place we patronized for years that is still operating out on a country road. Unfortunately, this year when we bought corn there, according to my Sweetheart-for-Life, it was “so tough, it was like old field corn” and obviously had been in storage for some time. We threw it out.

Well, times change and, as we get new developments such as the mega-grocery stores taking over our food supply, we lose some of those ingredients that have provided a quality to our lives that cannot be replaced. The sheer pleasure of eating corn on the cob we used to enjoy has largely disappeared because these colossal size enterprises simply cannot provide the freshness that is essential to this traditional delicacy. What we are offered is corn in brown, dry husks – a sure sign that the kernels have already turned to starch and are likely dry and tough.

I understand there are some “farmers markets” hereabouts – places where local growers sell their produce – that may provide fresh sweet corn, but I haven’t found any yet. Furthermore, the sweet corn season is nearly over, so unless we get lucky and find a proper source, I guess this year we’ll just have to enjoy the pleasant memories of those sweet corn seasons of the past. 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

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at