Thursday, October 15, 2009

How Corny: Becoming a Corn on the Cob Convert

Look at what I found at the market the other day - sweet red corn! You almost never see the red corn for sale as an edible entity; it usually only crops up this time of year in dried form intended for use in Autumn decorations. So when these garnet beauties winked at me from across the produce aisle, I was smitten. There was no question that a few of the ears would be making their way home with me.

But get this: historically, I've never been a fan of corn. Not in its straight-from-nature form anyway. Niblets make me gag; corn on the cob (even slathered with butter and salt) is just icky - I'll take a pass, thank you. Don't even think about mentioning creamed corn. But not liking corn on the cob - I find that fact pretty inconceivable. This is me we're talking about here - lover of all things fresh from Mother Nature. And I adore corn in other forms: polenta, tortillas, cornbread, popcorn, high-fructose corn syrup in every manufactured food on the planet (kidding about that last one, of course). Seriously - my corn aversion was just inexplicable.

And that's where some Mexican migrant farm workers entered the picture, and changed my attitude about fresh corn forever.

As you know, I live in the beautiful Napa Valley. We have a little thing called the grape harvest here, and every year right about this time, the valley is inundated with migrant field workers who are essential to the whole harvest machine. It's no secret that many of them are from Mexico, and the cultural influence they have on the valley - harvest time or otherwise - is astounding and rewarding.

After moving to the valley some eight years ago, I learned real quick that the entire economy would screech to a halt if the Mexicans were suddenly out of the picture. I also learned that farm workers of any nationality not only work hard, they play hard. And when they play, it's almost always traditional Mexican fare that graces the tables of the fiestas.

I'll never forget my first harvest party. It was a beautiful Indian summer evening, warm well after it got dark. The barn where the party was held was simply lit; hay bales for seating; doors flung wide open, perfectly framing the views of the colorful vines. Cowboy boots were the most prevalent footwear; cowboy hats almost as popular. Beer, overflowing (as the saying goes, it takes a lot of beer to make wine); Tejano music somehow playing in the background.

(We're still talking about corn, right? Sorry - I digress.) So the food - the food! The smell of traditional carnitas, slow-cooked for days, wafted through the air. Fresh tortillas were being turned out and griddled almost as fast as they could be eaten. Tripe, pesole, hand-rolled tamales, rice, beans... and grilled corn on the cob. I was devouring everything in sight - tripe included (I think) - but still, I ignored the corn.

Noticing my obvious disdain for the most simple thing on the menu, a couple of the guys pointed out to me the garnishing method they employed for their corn on the cob, and assured me that I would not only like it, but come to crave it.

Their not-so-secret secret? Dipping a wedge of lime into chili powder, and squeezing the wedge as it is rubbed up and down the length of a hot cob fresh off the grill. The lime juice saturates every nib, taking the chili powder along with it. No butter. No salt. And un-frikkin-believeable. I sat there like one of the kids - who were all well versed in this method - letting the corn/lime/chili juice freely run down my arms, getting the fibers caught in my teeth, and cleaning the cob like a logger clear-cutting a forest.

The Mexicans were right - I had instantly become addicted.

From that point on, there has been no turning back. I now look forward to corn season - and not just for the corn bread. And everyone I have ever introduced to this method has loved it as well. I still turn up my nose at niblets, and I'll never be able to stomach creamed corn, but corn on the cob? I'm a convert.

I don't know about you, but I call that good. I also call it Fare to Remember. I suggest you try it immediately.


  1. I need to try this. Have you ever tried corn on the cob that been soaked before grilling? There's a huge difference.

  2. I've never seen red corn before but if I did, I'd buy up a bushel! Loved your story about learning how to appreciate corn. I never went the butter route, thinking just a little salt + pepper were just fine but I recently started dressing it with lime, a little olive oil and chipolte powder and love it.