Sunday, August 3, 2014

Relishing Corn

Four days ago I was in Kirksville awaiting the start of our weekly bridge game at the duplicate club—something I do almost every Wednesday that I'm not on the road—when one of the regulars, Chris Buck, came up to me and asked if I wanted any sweet corn. When I allowed as how I did (asking someone if they want fresh sweet corn in July is about the same as asking if they want a piece of hot apple pie with fresh-churned vanilla ice cream—why would anyone say no?), Chris fixed me with his stare and said again, with added emphasis, "Do you want any sweet corn?"

I replied, "I know there's a reason why you're asking me to answer this question twice. What's going on?"

It turns out that he'd set out an enormous patch of corn and it was starting to get away from him. It's been an almost perfect growing year in northeast Missouri. Temperatures have been consistently in the 80s (warm enough to keep everything growing well but low enough to avoid heat stress, on both the crops and the farmers) and a good soaking rain has manifested from the heavens whenever we needed it. The result has been bountiful gardens, and Chris had corn coming out his ears (so to speak).

He told me that he and his wife had already put up 250 bags of frozen corn and they had decided to stop there. (I reckon.) Given that the remaining corn, of which there was gobs, was in perfect condition for harvesting—a window that only lasts a few days. Chris was not asking me if I wanted a bag of corn; he was asking me if I wanted a pickup load. Gulp.

Fortunately, I live in community, where it's actually possible to take advantage of large-scale, time-limited, no-advanced-warning opportunities.

So the next morning Ma'ikwe and I starting talking it through before we'd even gotten out of bed. The first question was how was the corn grown and was it genetically modified (GMO) seed. After some back and forth with Chris we determined that it wasn't organic, but neither was it GMO. While that meant it wasn't fully righteous by community standards, we knew that it was probably good enough to be attractive—especially because the sweet corn being grown in the tri-communities (the three-mile circle that includes Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill Farm, and Red Earth Farms) wasn't yet ready.

So Ma'ikwe and I decided to go for it. That meant signing out the pickup and arranging to meet Chris later in the afternoon to harvest the corn. Meanwhile, Ma'ikwe posted a note to the community announcing that the corn rush was on, and that people could buy ears out of the back of the pickup around supper time at the bargain price of five for a dollar, go as far as you wanted.

At noon I called up my old community, Sandhill, and asked if they wanted any corn relish made with non-organic, non-GMO corn. (Having just moved over from Sandhill last November, I knew the community loved corn relish, that they were out, and that they had a surplus of cabbage—a key ingredient in corn relish.) By timing my request during the lunch hour, Trish (Sandhill's garden manager) was able to canvass the community on the spot and within 30 minutes gave me a green light to use the cabbage and do the processing in Sandhill's commercial kitchen in exchange for jars of corn relish. Deal!

By servicing both the fresh market with the preserving market simultaneously, I would be able to use every ear, while garnering a premium for those that were plumpest and without blemish. That is, we allowed people looking for roasting ears to pick through the pile to get the ones they wanted, knowing that we could make full use of the slightly damaged or overripe ears in the corn relish. Efficient homestead food management often entails sorting fresh-use from preserved-use as the crop comes in. Everything has a highest use, yet you need choices to take advantage of the gradient in quality.

By the time dinner was over it was time to clean out the back of the pickup (the community only has one and we needed to get it unloaded before the next user Friday morning). By good fortune, there were a couple of Sandhill members visiting Dancing Rabbit for dinner and we took advantage of that to fill the trunk of their car and a good portion of the back seat with sweet corn, reducing the volume of remaining corn to something that would fit into a packed garden cart.

While wheeling the cart from the garage to Moon Lodge—a distance of about a quarter mile—we managed to sell another $15 worth of corn to people we bumped into on the path who'd missed the first rush. (It was like selling honey to bears.)

Friday morning I needed to scrounge up the other ingredients needed for corn relish—onions, sweet peppers, vinegar, sorghum, and spices—plus enough jars to it all into. As they came from four different sources, it took a while and I wasn't settled on site at Sandhill until late morning. The first order of business was shucking about 500 ears of corn. Then I had to parboil them before cutting the kernels off the cob.

While work continued until nearly midnight Friday (with Ma'ikwe joining me for five hours) and for an additional five hours alone on Saturday, in the end we had:
—14 quarts of corn relish for Sandhill
—72 pints of corn relish to eat, sell, or give away
—14 quarts of canned corn for Moon Lodge
—20 quarts of frozen corn
—social capital from all our corn-happy neighbors

When I closed my eyes last night I saw corn. But I'll get over that, and we now have enough savory pickled corn to relish for the next four years. Yeehah!

• • •
Typing this, I'm smiling as I think back to Thursday afternoon, when Jibran and I were pulling out of the corn patch with our loaded pickup. Chris asked if I wanted to come back in a day or two and get another load. I looked him right in the eye and said, "Thanks, but this will be enough."

Sometimes, you have to know when to quit.

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