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Savoring the sweetness of summer

By STEVE WILSON Executive Editor The Paducah Sun

This row has to end sometime.

If I said that to myself once, I said it a hundred times while picking sweet corn as a high school kid growing up in Rock Island, Illinois.

It was the hardest, hottest, lowest-paying (90 cents an hour) job in my life. Also one of the most satisfying.

I'm writing about corn today because it doesn't get its due in the news. Sure, we carry reports about how the crop is coming along (pretty good this year, though it could use more rain). But we don't appreciate enough the grain that covers more American farmland than any other and provides one of summer's most delectable foods. Corn has been so vital to life in America that the Pueblo Indians spoke of it as the fifth element: earth, air, fire, water - and corn.

Plus, every August my mind wanders back to those sweltering days when time was measured in dozens, not minutes.

We picked in teams of four - pickers across three rows, followed by a guy carrying burlap bags that took five dozen ears. We worked up a good sweat about 10 feet into the rows which ran a quarter-mile. Long-sleeve shirts made us sweat more, but we had to wear them since corn leaves can cut bare arms unmercifully.

The bags were tossed onto a tractor-trailer and taken to the barn where we mixed the ears with ice before trucking the day's work to a grocery chain warehouse.

The boss was Henry Hanson, an affable man who operated the family farm with his sons, Dick and Jack. When we reached the end of the row and took long drinks of water from gallon bottles on the trailer, Henry would wipe his brow and declare, "Better than a Budweiser."

He was right. Water has more flavor when you are awesomely thirsty, and it's never tasted more refreshing.

While sweet corn gets most of our attention, it represents less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. Virtually all the corn fields you see are growing more profitable field corn.

Nationally, field corn is used mostly for ethanol production, livestock feed, and such products as corn syrup, corn starch, corn flour and cooking oil.

In Kentucky, it has another big market. Since 95 percent of the world's bourbon is distilled here, a significant percent of the state's field corn goes into its production.

The nation's Corn Belt runs well to the north. Iowa ranks No. 1 in production, followed by Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota. Kentucky comes in around 15th, but corn is this state's No. 1 cash crop and most of it grows in western Kentucky. Chad Lee, an extension agronomist with the University of Kentucky, said if you draw a line from Owensboro to Bowling Green, 90 percent of the state's corn fields are west of it.

While far less sweet corn is grown, we still eat lots of it. Sweet corn consumption in the U.S. - fresh, frozen and canned - totals about 24 pounds per person a year.

Biotechnology has made sweet corn sweeter in recent decades. In the 1960s, most varieties had just 5 to 10 percent sugar content. Genetic experts figured out how to double that and introduced sugar-enhanced types. Their popularity was soon surpassed by "supersweet" hybrids with as much as 40 percent sugar (still only half as much as an apple).

Grocery stores favor supersweets because their kernels stay crispy longer.

White corn eclipsed yellow corn in popularity many years ago. Bicolor varieties, such as peaches and cream, also surged. Most of the ears I've enjoyed this summer came from Bennett's Market on New Holt Road. Patty Bennett said a supersweet bicolor ear called obsession is her current favorite.

There's no consensus about the best way to fix corn. I like to boil the ears for just a couple of minutes. My sister insists steaming is better. Other people think grilling with husks on, which carmelizes the sugar, can't be beat. In a test done in Cincinnati, microwaved ears were rated the best-tasting.

Butter has no better use than being slathered on ears of corn. Some friends prefer a mix of olive oil, garlic and grated Parmesan. Really fresh corn, however, tastes terrific with just a little salt or nothing at all.

The sublimity of just-picked, well-prepared corn is hard to overstate. Garrison Keillor put it this way:

"Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn."

Steve Wilson can be reached at swilson@

paducahsun.com.

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