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How to eat corn on the cob

Corn, before

Make no mistake: I truly, madly, deeply adore living in California, most especially for the food. Because of the diversity and temperateness of our climates, we have access to some of the most gorgeous and delicious produce even in the darkest days. But when summer is upon us (and around here, those are dark days indeed), I yearn for two things that in my mind do not stack up to their counterparts back east: Tomatoes and corn.

Summerfest2010logoMind you, I do rather like the heirloom tomatoes that have become omnipresent at farmers markets and even in the grocery stores out here, but I like them for their aesthetics, for the rainbow of colors and shapes they come in. Not so much for the flavor. Corn I complained about most bitterly in the first few years here. More recently, either the corn has gotten better, or my standards have lowered. At any rate, I've found it at least tolerable of late, though it still does not live up to the memory of the explosively sweet kernels of my youth.

Growing up, corn on the cob was my favorite summer food, bar none. And so I was devastated one year when I managed to lose both my upper front teeth, just at the peak of summer. I would miss out on a whole year of corn! At that age, a whole year was a significant fraction of my life. I thought I might never recover. Eventually, new teeth grew in, and one excrutiatingly long year later I was able once again to chomp down on juicy rows of sweet corn.

Here in California, corn on the cob has many faces. There is of course elote, the Mexican grilled corn on the cob with lime, chili powder and cotija cheese, and one frequently sees it paired with fancy compound butters or what have you. But I prefer it be left simple. Nothing is more pleasing to me than a cob of sweet corn, steamed just to the point of tenderness, slathered in butter and liberally sprinkled with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Basta.

Corn butter

As for the butter slathering: You must have corn butter. This is the partial or whole stick of butter that you keep around during the summer months expressly for the purpose of dredging hot cobs over. This is more efficient, you see, as it evenly glazes the corn with melted butter, whereas if you try to rub a nob of butter over a cob with a knife, it invariably slide off, leaving more of a puddle of melted butter on the plate than on the corn.

And here's the real secret: Somewhat later in my youth I learned an optimizing technique for eating corn on the cob. Normally, people attack the cob with total abandon, shredding kernels and leaving a big shaggy mess — and a large portion of the kernel still attached to the cob. Moreover, the part that gets mostly left behind is the germ, the most nutritious part of the corn.

First, use your standard corn-eating method and clear a row across the cob. From that point, go one row at a time, hooking the kernels against your bottom teeth, and gently turning the cob toward yourself. The kernels will pop out in their entirety and tumble gently into your waiting maw.

Corn, after

When you're done, you'll be left with a very tidy cob on which you can see the honeycomb-like structure of the rows. You'll also have a belly full of corn, germ and all.

Had I known about this technique earlier, I might have been less distrought the year I lost my two front teeth. However, I think I've made up for it in successive years of corn consumption.

Related: Be sure to check out this week's roundup of Summer Fest 2010: Corn over at San Diego Foodstuff for more corn ideas.

This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. I am a failure as a mother! I didn’t know you were so traumatized by your inability to eat an ear of corn that year! So sorry, Sean. Surely, I should have simply cut the kernals off the cob for you so that you could have had your annual taste of corn on the cob – albeit without the cob. 🙁

  2. I am a failure as a mother! I should have sought high and low for temporary teeth so that you could eat corn on the cob!! 🙂

  3. I made corn on the cob for my dad this week, and I think I had forgotten how tasty it was. I’ve always eaten around the cob, alternating ends, but I’ll give your method a try! (Dad has requested “more corn on the cob” so I’ll have a chance to practice until I master it!

  4. I’ll see your two lost front teeth and raise you two. Shortly after my sixth birthday (at the end of April), I lost all four front teeth, top and bottom. I had to eat watermelon out of the side of my mouth, and there was no corn at all.
    Once they grew back, I learned to eat corn on the cob like typing on a typewriter. Bite, bite, bite, bite, bite, bite, bite…click, ding! Carriage return, new row!

  5. Sean, love your posting! I went through the same phase as a kid in Brazil. Because I liked it so much my mother made something soupy out of it for me to enjoy. I guess here it would be called corn chowder?
    But then my teeth grew back and I was back eating it your way or Tana’s and never stopped

  6. Michigan sweet corn is one of my favorites of summer. My sister recently traveled to the Bay area to visit her sons and her only carry on was a soft sided cooler with two dozen ears of corn in it. She has taken them sweet corn two summers in a row and I think it will be mandatory from now on if she wants to see her grandkids! That is what everyone missed when they move away from here.

  7. Love corn. Miss the corn I had every summer as a girl in Kansas. I can commiserate with you, but sometimes I get lucky and find some really yummy corn. Like what’s waiting on me in the refrigerator for tomorrow at dinnertime!

  8. I ADORE corn on the cob. I too thought the corn was getting better here in California, but my partner recently went back to the midwest where his parents are (Indiana to be exact) and came back shaking his head at the California corn. “Midwest corn REALLY is better” he said. “Tastes more corn-y.”
    *sigh* But as it has been a REALLY long time since I’ve had Midwest corn, ignorance is bliss. I’ll take any corn on the cob I can get….

  9. Love the eating tips! We cooked corn on the cob night before last and coulda used these tips, but we’d probably forget as soon as the feeding frenzy started. :>)

  10. Rather than clear a row first, I prefer to go round one end and then eat along in a spiral, but pulling off the kernels with the lower teeth in the way you suggest 🙂

  11. Corn butter – but of course! I’m in the Midwest, where tomatoes and corn are at full glory right now, and I suspect you might be right. If it’s any consolation, we’ve lived through some brutal heat to get it, so we kinda deserve it. (But the heirlooms are pretty splendid too….)

  12. I grew up in Michigan, and that corn butter was a familiar sight. Of course, it’s also good if you use the corn butter for other things, because it is infused with a slight corn taste afterward. But that’s probably a travesty!

  13. I must admit, I too like my corn simple. Butter, salt and pepper is all I need to be happy. And the fashion in which you described how to eat it is exactly how I do it and that picture is just how mine looks at the end. For some reason though I never go all the way from end to end. There is usually one or two columns of corn on each end that I don’t pick off. But still I clean it pretty well.

  14. Eating fresh picked corn was the best part about my years spent in central Illinois. You are absolutely right, good corn only needs butter, salt, and pepper; divinity in simplicity.

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