Monday, 7 September 2015

In search of proper corn on the cob

It's corn on the cob season. In my childhood, I used to adore corn on the cob. Boiled until the kernels were golden-orange in colour, the texture firm, the cob dripping with butter and lightly salted, I'd love burying my teeth deep into ripe corn. But over the years, the growers, the seed-producers, the supermarkets and the mainstream consumer pushed for ever-sweeter corn that takes ever-shorter times to cook. What's available today is pale yellow even when boiled, small, and with regular, perfectly shaped kernels.

It is not the same.

In childhood, out of the corn on the cob season there was tinned sweetcorn, typically then imported from the US (Green Giant being a brand I recall from childhood). I liked the general taste but not the sweetness, the main differentiator between the tinned stuff and the real thing that had leaves and threads that needed removing before being cooked. Yet today, tinned or on the cob, the taste is the same - far, far to sweet for my taste.

Supermarkets currently offer no choice other than supersweet varieties, known to growers by names such as Kandy Korn, Crisp'N'Sweet, Krispy King - you get the picture. I'm not tempted by these items, shrink-wrapped on polystyrene trays at all. The supersweet varieties have four to ten times the sugar content of normal sweetcorn varieties, which themselves are sweeter than 'field corn' today used for animal feed or as a base for processed foods, which once upon a time was happily consumed by us humans.

Shortly after moving to Poland, I worked for a while by Hala Banacha in southern Ochota. There was an elderly peasant lady selling field corn outside the building. Sat on a small stool, she'd display a dozen or so ears of corn, and sell them for prices much lower than supermarket supersweet varieties. She said that her corn needed to be soaked overnight, and boiled for at least 20 minutes before it was ready to eat. This I bought from time to time during the autumn of 1997, and it gave me huge delight. It took me right back to childhood in terms of the taste. The kernels were large, crunchy and flavoursome. The corn was not sweet, so it did not need tons of salt to hide the sweetness. The butter could ooze between the kernels, which were not as tightly packed as on supersweet cobs. Corn heaven. Sadly, it would not last long.

By 1998, I'd moved offices away from Hala Banacha. By 2002, when I started to work near Hala Mirowska, there were no more old ladies selling corn on the cob on the pavement outside. Supermarket prices of sweetcorn had fallen, and there were bigger margins to be made on mushrooms or cut flowers. So the produce I bought outside Hala Banacha was the very last time I thoroughly enjoyed eating corn on the cob.

This is what I want to eat - old-style corn on the cob. Pic from Wikipedia.
Today I cannot find anywhere that sells old-fashioned stuff, the traditional varieties that once fed the world and now feed only livestock and industrial plants. I dream of a large cob devoid of excess sugar, that would yield those gorgeous golden kernels when properly boiled and would give me that taste of childhood  autumns.

I am surprised at the diversity of other vegetables. Looking at mainstream supermarkets such as Auchan, the number of different types - and colours - of tomatoes - is dazzling. And available in organic versions too. [The Polish ones are tastiest, beating the imported stuff from Holland and Spain that merely looks like tomato.]

So if retailers can bring to market diverse varieties of tomatoes, apples or potatoes - why not corn on the cob? Leave the supersweet as the white sliced loaf of corn, and introduce different varieties - yes, they may take longer to cook, but what a difference in taste.

Sugar-enhanced Supersweet? No thanks - not in the least bit interested in buying or eating this. Pic from Wikipedia
Does anyone who cares about food know where to buy old-fashioned corn on the cob? Field corn is on sale, but only by the tonne. Sweetcorn is called kukurydza cukrowa in Polish and the growers are all falling over themselves to say just how sweet and sugary their produce is. Why is there no consumer demand for the varieties that we once ate, and were forced out of the market by a product of inferior taste (though offering greater convenience in terms of shorter cooking time)? A world of sugar addicts, seeking enhanced sweetness in everything, is headed in the wrong direction.

Bring back the old varieties, I say, give the consumer choice when it comes to corn on the cob.

This time last year:
Classic machinery

This time two years ago:
S2/S79 opens partially (not yet reaching Puławska)

This time seven years ago:
Recycling time rolls round again


DC said...

Amen to that!

You point toward one of the worst things about living in North America. Apparently the marketing geniuses have convinced all the food processors as well as many farmers that 1) people only like things that are gruesomely salty or sweet - there are no other tastes to be enjoyed, and that 2) we prefer vegetables to be big and pretty, with all of the flavor bred out.

Chain restaurants follow suit and when you read the nutritional analyses of the food they serve, it's pretty alarming. Food processors love this since they've realized that if something is salty enough, you can drop the quality of the other ingredients and not lose sales.

So for people who try to reject these practices? Well, there are whole specialized supermarkets who are happy to sell you more normal levels of salt or sugar in food product - at double or triple the price. "Whole Foods" is probably the most famous - also referred to as "Whole Paycheck."

Add to that that somehow we've largely lost our European bread culture, unless you are lucky to live near an independent bakery who still remembers what proper bread is. But most people eat flavorless factory bread.

I could go on.... I know some of this junk has crept into the markets in Poland (my cousins complain, but are also expert sourcers from local farmers) but I still hold out hope. Please don't let them take over in Poland. If I lived in Europe, I would be opposed to the US-EU free trade agreement.

Thanks for writing about this.

Bob said...

We need to find a proper Dozynki Fest not far from Warsaw - maybe next weekend? Good timing perhaps.

There must be some

Anonymski said...

Really good fresh sweeetcorn is really sweet AND flavoursome. Having experienced it staying with farmers at harvest time in places as diverse as Canada and the Indian Himalaya, there is no comparison with what's commercially available in Europe.

The process of cooling, storage and delivery is what robs it of its "va-va-voom" or freshness or whatever you want to call it. Even more so with tomatoes and new potatoes.

You say Polish tomatoes are tastier (I agree), but could it be just due to the fact that they haven't been chilled for the Polish market? When I buy Polish tomatoes in London, they are average in taste.

My advice is to find your babcia from Banachskiej - or equivalent - or buy a farm: my intention. It'll never pay to produce the produce we remember again.

Think back how much those cobs cost as a percentage of your parents' income. Would you really pay £15 for a corn on the cob? (Proviso - available year round at same price and quality)

Great fotki as usual - very green for a susza! ;)

Michael Dembinski said...


Dożynki might be a good place to secure some old-style field-corn!

@Anonymski and DC:

The issue is the varieties on offer in all food retailers - supersweet, sugar-enhanced sweetcorn. I don't want it. I want plain, ordinary, old-school corn on the cob, which according to the Corn Council of the US, represents 90% of the corn grown there. It's just that it doesn't end up it the shops - it goes to food-processors and feedlots.