The Dirt: The corn diaries, part 2

Click the image above to view a slideshow by Margaret V. Williams and Jason Sandford.

Desire often invites tragedy.

This one began as a craving for my grandmother’s creamed corn. I explored seed catalogs, fantasizing about every variety, and finally picked two sweet ones: ‘Ira Hooker’s’ (multicolored and early) and ‘Golden Bantam’ (one of the original sweet yellows). (See “The Corn Diaries, Part 1,” May 14 Xpress.)

Then Mother Nature kicked my corny ass.

April showers

When my first seeds arrived, I shook the packets, opened them and inspected the dry, crinkled kernels. ‘Hooker’s’ came in pretty reds and yellows. ‘Golden Bantam’ gave no hint of its prized flavor, but I liked the plump, promising size of its seeds.

I was planning a “three sisters” approach: My partner and I would plant four corn seeds per mound, wait for them to sprout, then insert a few corn-loving beans in the same mound. I chose two suitable heirlooms: ‘King of the Garden’ limas and ‘Wampum’ beans.

In between the mounds, we’d plant potimarron (a French winter squash), ‘Black Beauty’ zucchini and ‘Early Prolific Straightneck’ yellow squash.

Meanwhile, the lusty promise of April showers led us to forget about the ongoing regional drought.

May planting

At our mountainside elevation, we couldn’t risk planting before Mother’s Day: Corn seed can rot when soil temperatures remain cool. But that day came and passed, and nighttime lows still lingered near the freezing point. The anticipation was worse than being a teenager waiting on your sweetheart’s text message.

Pass the butter: Catch “Golden Bantam” sweet corn early in its milk stage and guard against raccoon invaders. Photo By Margaret Williams

Finally, on a warm sunny day, we took our seeds out to the garden. My partner dubbed me She Who Plants; I said that made her She Who Weeds with Big Tiller.

I suggested that we (meaning she) build an 18-inch-square, bottomless wooden box I could use to create precise mounds. But She Who Weeds had other ideas about spending valuable time on a side project. Leaning on her hoe, she said, “Can’t we just plant now?”

So I made do with a rickety, 15-by-12-inch form used for setting concrete pads when our cabin was built. At the start of each 20-foot-long row, I wiggled it into the dirt a bit, my partner shoveled in the compost, I pushed the seeds into the dark earth, and we watered and moved on. A week later, we repeated the process for our ‘Golden Bantam’.

June sorrows

When I pulled weeds out of the dusty ground, they died amid the rigors of an unusually hot and dry June. That was fine with me. (I’d given She Who Weeds and Has a Bad Rotator Cuff a rest, assuming her duties.) My ‘Hooker’s’ crop, on the other hand, reached a mere 2 feet tall and took a rest, as my grandmother used to say. The ‘Bantam’ looked pretty unfeisty as well.

We resorted to hand-watering the whole garden every few days. Drip irrigation hadn’t been in our budget, so we dragged several hundred feet of hose to the garden. The emergency program took at least two hours, each and every time.

July’s eternal hopes

“My daddy had a love affair with corn,” my mother confessed during a July tour of my garden. “One year it was good; the next it was bad.”

Hmm. My ‘Hooker’s’ plot should have been providing fresh corn by mid-July, but June had mutated both its growth and its schedule. After a good thunderstorm, however, it revived, making lover’s promises (sort of) all over again. When it was less than 3 feet tall, tassels appeared. A few days later, I spied the bright silk of baby corn, some ears mere inches from the ground.

I had midget ‘Hooker’s’. Meanwhile, the bean vines sprouted huge, prehistoric-looking leaves, shot their tendrils upward but found no purchase. So they leaned down and twined their way through the squash.

I had no time to fret; the heat had given rise to all manner of basil-chomping, potato-leaf-chewing, people-biting bugs. She Who Plants wanted to be She Who Nukes with Modern Chemicals, but we went with organic measures instead.

Then more rains came, and I feared my garden would drown. I found myself pondering Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost.

August harvest

A month behind schedule, the ‘Hooker’s’ was displaying what corn scientists call “reproductive problems”: The little ears didn’t fill out all the way. We got a few incredibly plump rows on one side of an ear and aborted kernels on the other.

We harvested them anyway. Curious about this little white corn with its occasional blue-tinted kernel, I nibbled one raw ear as if I were a raccoon. It was the sweetest corn I’d ever savored. Sadly, it took about a dozen midget ears to make a side dish for two.

The ‘Bantam’ cobs filled out fine, but the overall yield was half what I’d hoped for. I’d also heard that ‘Bantam’s’ milk stage is so short-lived, you’d better bring the pot of boiling water to the field with you on harvest day. This proved all too true. At tasting time, we could tell we’d missed that peak stage by a few days. But at least we got most of it picked; a few days later, raccoons dragged some stalks out of the patch and made a midnight snack with the handful of ears we’d missed.

But by dang, I made creamed corn. I scraped the ears across my cheese grater, corn milk squirting me in the eye and leaving my hands sticky. Butter in the pan, a dash of salt and pepper, and the cup of creamed corn simmered and thickened.

Close to heaven. Maybe next year I’ll get closer still.


About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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