Saturday, August 9, 2008

Climate Reassignment and Corn

Well, it was fine spending the last three weeks back in the Midwest. Very relaxing, lots of old memories and a few new ones. But it turns out we really have been climate-reassigned. In addition to the humidity, which we never did get re-used to, there was a problem with clouds. We're accustomed to the desert sun (and to considering it unusual for even one cloud to mar the deep blue perfection of the sky), and we were slightly depressed by 21 days of seeing clouds.

It was dark and/or raining as often as it was light. Even on nice Midwestern days, the clouds can't seem to stop themselves from congregating, piling up and occasionally darkening the sky. As I sat in the sunroom and wrote, I was initially distracted and then somewhat mesmerized by the way the waxing and waning ambient light kept causing the backlighting on my computer keyboard to come on, turn off, come on, turn off. And I remember why I never bothered with sunglasses when I lived in Chicago. My Vegas shades had the unpleasant effect of making the Midwestern sky look gray and threatening no matter what the actual weather.

By Midwestern summer standards, though, the actual weather was great. About half the time, we were able to open the house and live in the fresh air. That was a nice change, both from the hot humid Chicago summers we remember and from the four months of nonstop air-conditioning required during Las Vegas summers. (In the desert, we end up feeling hermetically sealed, all but shrink-wrapped, by the time we finally get to open our windows in late August or early September.)

We left this morning, heading west. Destination: Las Vegas. But not before another few days of travel, including some more National Park hopping. Today, we crossed Wisconsin and made our way into Iowa. The western part of Wisconsin is very beautiful and rather European-looking, with its rolling hills, carpets of green, green, green farmland portioned into neat individual farms, grazing cows, pale blue skies and puffy white clouds. A few dozen miles before the Mississippi River, the hills roll more precipitously and the highway starts to feature sheer roadcuts, first of sandstone, then of sandstone and limestone. The geological layers are as clear and evocative as ever. The mighty Mississippi, which helped carve all this picturesque landscape, isn't so mighty this far north. If you've seen it in New Orleans or Memphis or even Rock Island, it seems surprisingly contained in Dubuque
, although it's still a perfectly respectable river.

We cross it into Iowa (state of my birth) and the landscape is as gorgeous as farmland gets. Seriously rolling hills, more of the green carpets, but also acres and acres and acres of the cornfields Iowa is famous for. And what a glorious plant corn is. It evidently rained here earlier today and the gold and green corn stalks, with their distinctive tall layered leaves, are practically iridescent. The vistas are long and wide, and the red and white and silver farmhouses and outbuildings seem to have been placed for maximum charm. There's also some low-to-the-ground leafy crop (soybeans, perhaps?) blanketing many of the hills and fields in neat, packed-together rows. These form a lovely counterpoint to the high, waving cornfields. When we crest ridges, we can see that the corn is in rows, too, and that both crops have intricate row patterns, some neat and parallel, some at right angles to each other, some semicircular.

I feel obliged, as a public service, to include both a paean to, and the proper recipe for, fresh sweet corn. I don't think you have to be from Iowa to think the taste of fresh corn in August is one of the best tastes there is.

On the other hand, you might have to be Iowish (as my kids refer to me) - or a member of my family - to consider the following meal the essence of summer perfection, but try it and see what you think. Make the corn the main event. Have 3-4 ears per person and serve them, buttered and salted of course, with two sides: fresh tomatoes, and tuna salad (just tuna, celery, salt, pepper and a little mayonnaise - nothing fancy). Yum.

In any event, here's the proper way to prepare fresh corn on the cob. Depart from it at your peril.

--Buy firm ears of corn still in their protective green husks. If possible, open a top or two to check that you have fresh very pale yellow ears with even rows of smallish kernels. If you do, pop one of those kernels under your fingernail and listen for the little crack - if the kernel doesn't pop like a balloon-skin tight with water, pick a different ear or maybe even a whole different market or roadside stand. Note: your corn should be from Iowa, Wisconsin or Illinois if at all possible. I've had corn grown elsewhere and I don't recommend it. That said, though, freshness is the key. Your corn should have been growing in a field a couple days ago. If you're close enough to IA, WI or IL, great; if not, go with fresh.

--Enlist everyone you're feeding to shuck the corn and smooth off the cornsilk.

--Drop the shucked ears into a big pot of boiling salted water (the kind you cook pasta in) and leave them there for 2 minutes. Not 3 minutes, not 5 minutes and certainly not the outrageous 10 minutes people sometimes speak of. Overcooking fresh corn is a crime and the squishy result should be neither tolerated nor perpetrated. (I'm not even going to attempt to express my contempt for the use of microwaves in the cooking of fresh corn.)

--After the 2 minutes, remove the ears from the water with tongs, give one to everyone, and let them do their own buttering and salting. Eating with fingers is recommended, and plenty of napkins and dental floss will be required.

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