Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Traditional Southern Fried Corn

It's hard to imagine that the posting I did back in early August about frying okra is showing up on my stats counter as one of the top-read postings on this blog.  Admittedly, the "real" stats counter went down unexpectedly when I shifted to the new blog template towards the end of August, and I haven't been able to figure out how to get it up and running.  But this one is useful to track data that the flag counter on the home page of the blog doesn't count.  As I've noted before, the count of daily pageviews hat the flag counter provides is, for some mysterious reason, lower than the one embedded by Google in its blogger program.  And I didn't install the flag counter until two years or so after I began blogging, so it provides a very incomplete picture of readership over the full time I've maintained this blog.

And those preliminaries out of the way: the popularity of the okra posting emboldens me to think some readers might want another detailed walk through a traditional, taken-for-granted Southern dish that is not usually prepared well anymore, if it's prepared at all.  Because cooks have forgotten what this dish is all about.

And because you can't prepare it any longer, since the main ingredient necessary for its preparation has, to a great extent, vanished from the American culinary landscape.  The dish in question is fried corn.  Be forewarned that I'm going to tell you how to cook something I am also telling you that you probably can't cook, unless you are the rare reader who has access to fresh green field corn, the essential ingredient of this venerable old Southern recipe.

First you get your corn.  And it has to be fresh corn, just picked that day, if at all possible.  My mother, who loved fried corn beyond all other food (and we did, too, as children) had a reliable supplier.  Our neighborhood was separated from another white neighborhood in our Deep South southern Arkansas town by an African-American community that had a name all to itself, Morning Star.

And it was separated from us by more than racial lines: as you drove from white suburb to white suburb, passing through Morning Star, the pavement ended.  It resumed when you arrived at the next white neighborhood.  In the 1960s, as I entered my teen years and black people who had formerly been invisible to me became visible to me as a result of the social changes going on all around me (as well as a result of my own process of growing up), I had fierce arguments with my father about the lack of paved streets in this and every other black neighborhood in our town.

He insisted that African Americans don't pay taxes and didn't deserve pavement.  I insisted that I knew some people who lived in these communities (some of them were in my classes once our schools integrated) and they did, indeed, pay taxes and deserved paved streets.  For my insistence, I was sent from the table without dinner anytime I dared to challenge my father's assertions about these matters.

And one reason I knew the Morning Star community up-close was that my mother had a farmer friend there, an elderly black man who kept her supplied with corn when field corn was ripening.  The lack of pavement in the community went hand in hand with the encroachment of farms right into the neighborhood.  Driving into Morning Star was like driving into the country, with fields literally at the doorsteps of the houses.

The man who grew corn knew my mother's car by sight, and as he saw my mother approaching, the farmer would step out into his field and pick several dozen ears of fresh field corn, luscious with corn milk.  He'd be standing waiting for us as we drove up, with the ears of corn in a towsack.  They were still hot from the sunny fields.

After she had paid her friend and exchanged pleasantries with him, my mother did not waste a moment getting the corn back home to fry.  As I've said, she had a passion for this dish, and she intended for it to be done right, if it were to be done at all.  She refused even to try to fry corn bought from a grocery store.  She did that only once, to show us that she was right: you can't fry any corn but corn picked fresh that day.  From a field.  Not a garden.  It has to be field corn.  And she turned out to be right.

My mother adored fried corn so much that, once, when we were in school and she bought corn from her farmer supplier, she went home, fried a skillet of fried corn.  And  then ate the whole thing.  All by herself.  And she felt so guilty that she scoured the skillet and hid it in the oven before we came home from school.  Her cousins loved to hear this story, because it proved that the high-school beauty queen who spoke such precise English had an exploitable weakness, and they could relinquish their old jealousies of her.

So you've picked or bought your fresh corn--say two dozen full ears for a good skillet of fried corn.  And it's field corn, not garden corn.  I harp on that fact for three reasons: first, field corn is what we ate, we Southerners, all summer long.  We ate it by choice for the second reason you need field corn to make this dish: because it tasted like corn.  Not like candy.  And that's the third reason we used field corn: garden corn has been hybridized in recent years to taste like candy.

Traditional Southerners abhor sugar in their vegetables, salad dressings, breads (above all, cornbread).  You might find a pinch of sugar lurking with a few pods of red pepper in a mess of collards, to bring out their natural sweetness after frost has been on them.  But you will never, never, never find sugar in a corn dish on a traditional Southern table.  Dessert is dessert and ought not to be mixed with the delights of wonderful fresh vegetables.  You can trace the bastardization and decline of traditional Southern cuisine by tracing the growing addition of sugar to dishes like cornbread, or to vegetable dishes and salad dressings.

You've gotten your ears of field corn and want to fry them.  If you're following my grandmother's culinary guidebook, you'll now step outside to shuck your corn.  Because--as everyone knows, she would have insisted--corn shucks draw flies.  We never used the term "husk," by the way.  You shuck the shucks from the corn, and if you lived way back in the country before the 20th century, you might well save them to dry and then fill a corn-shuck mattress.

When my grandmother was visiting and an irresistible envie for fried corn struck my mother, lawn chairs would be set up beneath the huge, cool pine trees that clustered in our back yard.  There, as the breezes sighed through the fragrant pine needles, my grandmother and I would shuck the corn to keep the flies outside the house.

And she'd talk.  And I'd listen.  To one family story after another, like the one about the time her brother John, who lived with her following his wife's early tragic death from tuberculosis, called her and my mother to pick him up at a saloon-cum-brothel outside town.  

My mother drove her mother to the house of ill repute.  Where no John was in sight--at least, not one with the name Batchelor.  And so there was nothing for them to do but sit in the car, in the sight of God and everyone else, while John finished his business inside.  

When he finally came out, as my mother drove her mother and uncle back home, my grandmother took her pocketbook and spent the entire drive home beating her brother in the head with it, for exposing her reputation to the flames of public censure.  Two ladies sitting in a car in broad daylight in front of a brothel--the very idea!

And so your corn is shucked, the flies are outside, and you've heard a set of family stories for the umpteenth time.  What's next?  

This is perhaps the hardest step of all in frying corn: you need to cut the kernels off the cob in a way that "milks" the ears of corn.   Because the corn milk--which is why you've picked or bought fresh corn--is what makes this work.  One reason you can't fry store-bought corn is that the milk dries up quickly once the corn is picked.  And so the store-bought corn just won't do what corn has to do, in order to produce a dish of fried corn.

To milk the corn, you must have an extremely sharp knife that you can wield with ease, because it is easy to cut yourself or someone else as you take the next steps.  A smaller, but substantial, knife a step down from a French chef's knife works best for this.  In a large basin, preferably someplace that you do  not mind splattering with a bit of the corn milk, stand each ear of corn on end (the flatter end works best as the standing end), and, holding the ear of corn firmly, quickly cut just the tips of each kernel off into the basin.  You are cutting down the cob, top end to bottom end, as you do this.

When you've done that, take the same knife you've just used, but turn it so that you're now using the back (dull) side of the knife blade, and not the sharp side.  Take the knife and work the back of the blade down the ear until you can see that all the succulent corn milk has been extracted from the cob into the basin with the tips of the kernels.  Do this with each ear.

You should now have a nice basin of fresh corn, in which crisp tips of corn kernels are swimming in rich corn milk.  It's time to begin frying that mix, which you should first season with salt and a generous amount of fresh-ground black pepper, whose taste (or so we always claimed in my family) complements that of fresh corn.

In a large black iron skillet (other heavy skillets will work, but black iron is traditional for Southern cooking) melt some bacon drippings along with some butter--good, fresh butter.  Not margarine.  How much you use will depend on how much corn you're frying and how much grease you want in the final product.  We always used bacon drippings and butter, perhaps two tablespoons of the former and three of the latter for two dozen ears of corn.

Heat this until it is hot but not smoking.  Butter scorches, and you don't want that to happen.  When the grease has just begun to show a sign of shimmering, tump your seasoned corn mix into the hot grease, stir it well with a spatula/pancake turner, and turn the heat down to just below medium.  You can, if you wish, and your corn seems insufficiently moist, add a dollop of rich whole milk at this point, though that's cheating just a tiny bit.

At this point, you want to do two things: 1) leave the corn to its own devices, and 2) watch carefully as it does its thing.  "Its thing" is that it needs to fry until it has begun to brown nicely on bottom.  But you do not want the corn to scorch.

So occasionally, as you are letting the corn fry, you will want to use your spatula/pancake turner to check the degree of brownness on the bottom, and to see if the corn is badly sticking.  If it is sticking, you will want to 1) scrape the bottom vigorously so that the browned bits incorporate with the pudding-like corn above them, and 2) possibly--your call if this is needed--add a pat of butter and a bit of milk.

This is really the long and short of frying corn, according to Deep South traditions. As you fry over heat just short of medium, you will scrape the browned layer several times from the bottom, and a new layer will begin to brown in its place.  When you've done that a few times, your corn is ready to serve and eat. 

You should have, as your final dish, a dish of savory, pudding-like (but decidedly not sweet) corn that has the very essence of corn flavor, with brown bits scattered through the pudding from the frying.  All you will really need as an accompaniment will be sliced ripe tomatoes, which have an affinity for corn dishes, and some sliced cantaloupe.  If you want a more substantial meal, speckled butter beans cooked down with a bit of bacon fat and perhaps some pods of okra steamed on top of them, and served with cornbread, would be traditional.  Along with pole beans simmered until they are almost fried with a piece of ham and some new potatoes.

And a glass of sweet iced tea.  Which I can no longer allow myself--as I probably couldn't allow myself much fried corn, if I could even find the ingredients--now that I'm diabetic.  But I can still dream.

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