SHEWCHUK ON SIMMER: FROM TRENDY TO THE TRASH
by Allan Shewchuk
It’s harvest time again, and you know what that means: farmer’s markets with a cornucopia of fall vegetables, and dinner plates brightened by the colors of beets, squash and peppers. But for me, the best thing about autumn’s bounty is when the hot weather ends and the corn is harvested. Table manners be damned — I’ll put loads of butter and salt on a cob and just go for it, elbows up. This is why, in the fall, I’m always on the lookout for one of the strangest phenomena of prairie life: the roadside corn truck.
There are good reasons for my belief that these pop-up corn vendors are strange. The first is that they’re never manned by fresh-faced farmer’s kids or the grower him- or herself, but by guys who look like they just escaped from a prison farm and are too creepy to even get a job on a midway. These poor souls invariably wear ball caps that look like they were dipped in motor oil, and they usually sport home-made tattoos on their knuckles. There’s no cash box nor any sign of a receipt, and it kind-of makes me worry about whether they just pulled off a giant heist from a local field. Is there such a thing as a “corn rustle”?
The second reason these makeshift stands are odd is that starting about a hundred meters from where the seller has pulled off the road, there’s a series of signs telling you that there’s corn up ahead. These aren’t notices manufactured by a sign shop. Rather, the hallmark of the “fresh corn” signs is that they’re usually just sheets of plywood, leaning precariously, which have been spray-painted freehand, frequently in bright red. The handwriting is almost illegible, and it’s not unusual for the “R” in “CORN” to be backwards, making the whole scene look like something out of a Stephen King novel.
Maybe it’s my love for cobs, or maybe it’s just that I don’t want the stand guy to touch my produce with his tattooed knuckles, but I always end up buying a whole sack of corn, which makes my wife furious. She’s the kind of person who thinks family photos are “clutter” around our house, and so she’s constantly throwing out my overbuy of corn behind my back. Think of her as the Marie Kondo of the crisper. To stay ahead of my decluttering darling, I go through every recipe for corn under the sun, including everyone’s favourite harvest dish that I make: bacon and sweet corn risotto. But when I say “everyone’s favourite,” I’m only talking about Canadians, as I found out the hard way when living in Europe.I had been warned some years ago about serving corn in the EU by my chef pal Shelley Robinson, lately of Top Chef fame. She told me that one day, while doing a “stage” at a restaurant in France, she found it was her turn to choose and prepare the daily special. So she headed off to a local market, found some gorgeous ears of corn, and set about making a hearty corn chowder. She was proud of her effort until the chef de cuisine arrived, took one look at the pot of soup and yelled “You stoop-eed American! Corn is for the pig, not for the man!” and poured the chowder down the sink.
I should have kept this in mind when I was living in Italy and invited an all-Italian group for dinner. I made my famous corn risotto, only to watch every guest meticulously pick each kernel of corn from the dish and set it aside. I learned that it’s a bad idea to show off one’s culinary skills while serving animal feed.
I guess I don’t blame Europeans for being suspicious of corn. When Columbus first brought maize back from the Aztecs, he didn’t realize that those indigenous North Americans had figured out that their type of corn had to be soaked in water and ashes before it was consumed, otherwise it would actually cause malnutrition and, in some cases, dementia and a form of madness.
I’m not sure whether eating too much modern-day Canadian corn could cause the same problems and scramble someone’s brain. But if the creepy dude running the roadside stand is consuming an overabundance of his own product, it would at least explain all that spray-painted writing on the plywood signs leading to the corn stand…
Allan Shewchuk is a lawyer, food writer and sought-after Italian food and wine guru. He currently has kitchens in both Calgary and Florence, Italy, but will drink wine pretty much anywhere.