Carolyn J. Rose
When sweet corn season comes around, I think of my father. He loved fresh-from-the-garden corn, especially corn from his own garden. And he went to incredible lengths in order to sink his teeth into kernels slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper.
The yearly struggle to triumph over dry spells, disease, weeds, marauding crows, and determined raccoons began in the heart of winter with the arrival of the seed catalogs. He’d page through them, searching for the old and familiar varieties, and for the latest hybrids that claimed to hold that just-picked sweetness a little longer.
Spring can be fickle in the Catskill Mountains, toying with gardeners, teasing them with mild days followed by snow or hail or plunging temperatures. But, finally, the time would come to hook the plow to the tractor. He’d turn the rocky soil, cart off large stones worked up by the frost, harrow what he’d plowed, cart off more stones, then spread fertilizer and lime from huge brown paper bags. He did that with his bare hands. Having survived World War II and the perils of flying a supply route from India to China, he wasn’t worried about a few chemicals.
Level land was at a premium on his acreage, so it wasn’t a huge field—at least not by the standards of the Midwest, where corn is serious business. He’d stake out rows, carve furrows and, when the leaves on a white oak were the size of squirrels’ ears, space out the seeds and cover them with just the right amount of soil.
In a few days, he’d pace the rows in search of the first pale green sprout. That became an evening ritual, walking the rows, checking progress, planting a second wave, yanking out weeds.
By the time school was out, the weeds were ferocious, and my brother and I were tasked with crawling among the young plants and pulling them out. The best time, according to my father, was early in the morning while the dew was on the ground and the weeds came up easily, root and all.
For me, there was no “best” time to weed. There was only the wrong time—and the wrong time was any time, but especially early on a summer day. Only the threat of allowance withheld got me out of bed and into the corn.
By August, the ears were fat and the tassels turning brown. The corn was nearly ready to pick. And the raccoons knew it. Night after night they came, climbing the stalks, tearing off the husks, dining on milky raw corn.
Day after day my father plotted ways to halt their forays into the field. On visits to the general store/post office he commiserated with other gardeners and came home with fresh ideas.
He mixed hot pepper with lard and painted it on the ears. That night the raccoons ate more.
He hung aluminum pie pans from the stalks hoping the clatter would deter the masked marauders. Apparently it was music to their ears.
He ran a string of extension cords and set a strong light in the center of the field. The light shone through my bedroom window and cast shadows of cornstalks on the wall above my bed. One night the shadow of a raccoon appeared and I ran to alert my father. He seized his rifle, raced to the edge of the field, and fired. The raccoons escaped unscathed.
The next night, they returned, but I slept through their shadow show. Finally, by offering financial incentives, he enlisted us to sleep in the field. We, in turn, recruited friends and, armed with a battery-operated radio, soft drinks, snacks, sleeping bags, and canvas tarps, set up camp.
The raccoons stayed away.
What I remember most about those summer nights is going to sleep damp from the dew and waking up to find some manner of bug crawling on me.
What I remember most about summer dinners is the taste of sweet corn just out of the garden and the fleeting feeling that it was all worth it.