Putting Up Corn

On a hot, humid late June afternoon I visited the pecan orchard of my friend, Gordon. After our inspection of his orchard was complete, Gordon, having more corn than he could eat himself, invited me to pull a few ears from his sweet corn patch, where the tightly packed kernels had reached that goldilocks zone of maturity, in which the kernel’s juices hold just the slightest hint of opacity. I myself, grow a small patch of sweet corn, usually ‘Silver Queen’, an homage to the ways of my ancestors and in the delight of seeing things grow. But, my small garden patch only produces enough to enjoy a few fresh ears for eating on the cobb with fresh slabs of tomato alongside.

               Gordon’s offer brought to mind images of the holy trinity of southern meals—cut sweet corn, crowder peas, and country fried steak, an image so visceral in memory that my mouth immediately began to water. We pulled three dozen ears, the little tags of brown, dried silk matted to the end of the shucks. As we pulled and twisted, the papery rustle of shucks and leaves bumped up against the rubbery squeak of ears separating from stalks until we had filled two 5-gallon buckets.

               Once home, the real work began. Teenagers don’t see a lot of value in working to get fresh sweet corn they naively believe to be the same as store-bought, ready to eat corn in a microwaveable bag. So, the task at hand remained with me alone. I shucked and silked. I boiled the naked ears six at the time for four minutes, then plunged them into a bowl of ice water. For those unfamiliar with the process, this is termed blanching and its purpose is to halt the activity of enzymes within the corn that degrade color, texture, and most importantly, flavor. Blanching thereby preserves these valuable components of the dining experience.

               After blanching and cooling the ears, I took a long, sharp, serrated knife from the kitchen drawer and began cutting the kernels from the cobb. I cut the kernels short, meaning I sliced through them about half way through their thickness. This leaves a remnant still attached to the cobb and allows some of the kernel’s juices to ooze out and form a sort of “cream”. I then scraped the knife down the cobb’s length, scrubbing off small shreds of kernel which mixed with the cream. This is where the good stuff is found.

               I could use any one of various corn cutters sold to make this job easier but that’s the way I saw it done by a little old lady who loved me years ago. Every six ears I scoop up the goods with a big spoon and fill a quart-size bag. Throughout this process my thoughts keep returning to that little old lady who loved me.

Nanny was a small lady. A little round through the hips maybe, but small everywhere else. Small hands, small feet, short in stature. Dainty little fingers that held a Virginia Slim cigarette every day that I knew her. She could be feisty, even pessimistic at times, but I can tell you, I’m not sure anyone ever loved me more. Absolute and unconditional love. The kind everyone should know at some point in their lives.

Nanny came from a broken home during the depression. She knew hardships, to be sure, from the absence of her father, but she also knew unconditional love. For a time it was just her, her sister Ruth, and Granny Pauline, my great grandmother—one of the most kind women ever to walk this earth. On more than one occasion I witnessed, with my own eyes, Granny Pauline speaking in tongues in the Cordele Church of God. She seemed to go into a trance and started shaking as a lot of mashed up words ending in “shabba” flew from her mouth. It spooked me then and the thought of it still today is unnerving. But, that’s another story.

Nanny married Pop, my grandfather, on Christmas Day 1948. They snuck off, got married, and he dropped her off back at home like any other date that night to sleep under her own mother’s roof. I’m not sure how long the ruse lasted but Pop was soon shipped off to Alaska to serve as a cook in the army.

I could tell you more about Nanny and her raising of the hellion that became my father. She made him cut his own switches and then wore them out on his hind end, which turned out to be tougher than the switches. But, that’s another story too. The focus here is her greatest talent and gift.

Every child born in the south will tell you that his or her grandmother was the best cook in the world. And I am sure they were to them. There’s something a little extra in a grandmother’s cooking. Something you won’t find at anyone else’s table. Something you won’t find in a culinary school or high-end restaurant with world-renowned gourmet chefs. I would put Nanny up against any of them and she’d have beaten the pants off them without even breaking out her switch.

               The food, the food. My Lord, the food. I should begin with the biscuits. I have never tasted before or since, a biscuit that could compare with those of this woman. I’m not sure how she did it, for she had no recipe. I know this because my wife explicitly asked her for the recipe just prior to our marriage and Nanny told her there wasn’t a recipe. It was all by feel. While it is entirely possible Nanny didn’t share the “how-to” of her biscuit making because she wanted to hold onto this small advantage for my affections, she probably didn’t have a recipe. I saw her make hundreds of pans of biscuits without ever once looking at a recipe.

               These mouth-watering, hand-patted, hand-made from scratch magical morsels of baked dough were placed onto a thin cast-iron pan, sort of like a skillet with no sides, and were baked to perfection in the oven. They weren’t big, fat biscuits. Maybe a half-inch in thickness and about the diameter of a water bottle. I never once saw her burn a single pan. Every time, they were removed from the oven perfectly golden on top and bottom, slightly flaky on the outside and soft as a feather pillow on the inside. You didn’t have to put any butter on them because it was cooked into the dough from the outside-in. Of all the magnificent dishes this woman prepared, this was her masterpiece. I cannot separate her in my mind from those biscuits. They were a part of her.  

Her sweet tea was nectar for the Gods. The Southern U.S. is famously the only place in the world where sweet tea is served. In fact, many places in the world do not even like iced tea. They drink it hot like coffee. And since they don’t usually put sugar in it, I don’t blame them. I had to stop drinking sweet tea due to kidney stones a few years ago but if you don’t have that problem and you don’t drink sweet tea, I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with you. If you’ve ever ordered sweet tea in a restaurant North of Macon, Georgia it probably wasn’t real sweet tea so don’t challenge me on this if that’s your only exposure. In fact, I question whether or not you can get real sweet tea in a restaurant at all. You must be invited to share it in the house of a Southern lady born prior to 1940 to get the real thing.

               Nanny’s sweet tea was more closely related to syrup than to the iced tea most Northerners would be familiar with. It wasn’t light golden brown in color, but dark like maple syrup, more sugar than tea, and when poured it didn’t come out splashing little droplets. It poured out heavily, almost oozing from the pitcher. I don’t know how many cups of sugar she used, but Coca-Cola would be a healthy alternative to Nanny’s tea.

There was also strawberry cobbler, lemon pie, the best macaroni and cheese known to man. She was the uncontested master of that holy trinity of meals I described earlier— country fried steak, crowder peas, and sweet corn. The cast-iron, black skillet she used all of her adult life was seasoned to perfection from frying bacon, eggs, fish, sausage, steak, chicken, and okra. Your mouth will still water today simply from touching its handle. Cooking was my grandmother’s way of serving and doing for others. She used her talent well.

We watched college football and Atlanta Braves baseball games together. Bob Horner’s long curly hair dangling from under his cap at third base infuriated her to no end. “Maybe if he would cut that hair, he could hit”, she would growl when Horner struck out. She loved to watch Wheel of Fortune. If someone would spin the wheel one more time when the answer was obvious, she would say, “He’s getting greedy!” and then cackle away when the wheel landed on “Lose a Turn”. She called the red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers flying from tree to tree in her yard “peckerwoods”. She loved to fish for the crappie we called white perch using “minners” and a telescoping “bream-buster” pole.

Though I didn’t deserve it, Nanny’s main interest in life was me and I am so much the better for it. Once, when I had screwed up, she was the person who told me, “If you ask God, He’ll forgive you. So will I. “ Powerful words from a little woman with a big heart.

Nanny taught me to wash and iron clothes, how to cook, how to balance my checkbook. Lord, how I hated sitting at that kitchen table and crunching those numbers. When things didn’t add up right, she had me do it again, telling me, “find your mistake”. She’s the reason I am called “tight” by friends and family today.

When I learned to drive, Nanny even shared her 1982 black Thunderbird with me. She let me use it for my first real car date. When she retired and no longer needed it for work during the week, Nanny even let me drive “the bird” to school. Its leather interior had soaked up the odor of Nanny’s Virginia Slims and the only way I could listen to my R.E.M., The Cult, and Def Leppard cassettes was to buy an adapter for the 8-track tape player. But the bird gave me some freedom for a short time every day and I have Nanny to thank for that.

My grandparents weren’t wealthy people. They lived frugally and humbly so that I could have every chance at what I wanted out of life. They didn’t have much faith in my chosen career path through academia because they didn’t understand it. They had no reference for it. For that matter, neither did I. But they had faith in me and that has made all the difference. As I stood there in the kitchen putting up corn, all these things ran through my mind. I didn’t appreciate Nanny nearly enough. I have watched her and Pop work at this same task together so many times. I didn’t appreciate the work they put into it then. In Nanny’s kitchen, the bags of corn just seemed to emerge from her freezer like magic, a never-ending supply.

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