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  • The Scent of CornRemembering Jean Mihalyka
  • Bernard L. Herman (bio)

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The farm lane, bright white in the unrelieved sunlight, with a comb of undercarriage bruised and blackened grass up the middle, ran in an arrow-straight line to a dark spot of distant shade where Mr. Wyard lived in the old family house. All illustrations by Nate Beaty.

[End Page 82]

Our foraging friends on Occohannock Neck, Malcolm and Carol, assured us that there was a summer moment in which field corn achieved perfection for the plate—and then as quickly reverted to the unpalatable starches desired for animal feed. To prove their assertion, they invited us for a supper anchored with cold smoked venison, grilled fish, garden greens, and homemade pickles—all centered on the presentation of corn plucked hot from a dip in boiling salted water.

"Tomorrow," Malcolm observed, "field corn will be inedible—unless you're a chicken."

"I wouldn't wonder," Carol footnoted, "if it wasn't already past its moment this evening and already gone to starch."

I paused mid-bite and asked the obvious. "How do you know the day—the one day of summer—has dawned when field corn is fit for the plate? Is it the color of the silk? Or something you see when you peel back the husk?"

"No," Malcolm and Carol chorused, "it's the scent of corn, how it smells early in the morning," adding, "And you've got to be fast. It turns quickly." He paused. "Plus, it's not our field."

For those who might not know, the difference between field corn and sweet corn is significant. Noah Hultgren of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (admittedly far removed from the South) gets to the point. "Field corn," he states with authority, "is used to feed livestock, make the renewable fuel ethanol and thousands of other bio-based products like carpet, make-up, or aspirin." "Sweet corn," on the other hand, "is harvested when the kernels are soft and sweet, making it ideal for eating." Then he gets to the culinary punchline: "If you grab an ear of field corn and try to take a bite, you'll probably break your teeth. It's hard and dry (and only tastes good to cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys and some wild animals)." David Shields, author of Southern Provisions, deepens the explanation with his customary erudition: "Sweet corn came about as a mutation to the mechanisms that convert sugar to starch as part of the maturation process in field corn, interrupting the conversion and rendering the kernels sugary rather than mealy. Three ancient [End Page 83] strains of sweet corn—chulpi in South America, mais dulce in Central America, and popoon corn in North America—were cultivated by Native peoples, harvested green and eaten as a vegetable rather than dried down for grinding into meal."1

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The breezes go still, humidity populates the roads with optic distortions that appear as giant black snakes rippling from a verge of browning grass and then evaporating into the radiant heat. Cicadas scream their songs of lust and death.

In mid-summer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, field corn grows tall and dense. Sweet corn tends to be markedly shorter and more spindly in appearance. Malcolm and Carol, sensitive to the instant when the flavor and texture of field corn align with those of sweet corn, annually seize their opportunity. I happily bit into my purloined ear of corn with the conviction that it's generally a good idea to eat the evidence—at least when it comes to corn.


My thoughts wander to the scent of corn and an August afternoon a lifetime ago in the company of my friend and fabled local antiquarian Ms. Jean. The redolence of corn in scorching summer perfumes the imagination, flavors recollection—and there's plenty of corn and memory to go around in our corner of the world. [End Page 84]

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Woven from hand-riven splints, the baskets presented the hallmarks of the locality. Almost perfectly hemispherical, each one consisted of ribs...


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