Photo by Chris Casella

King Harvest

During my sophomore and junior years of college, I took a year off. You know, the one where you work a crap job and party yourself out so you can go back to school and actually not feel bad about your parents footing the bill? Yeah, that year. During that year, my father, my little brother, and I went on a mini-vacation to the Southwest. A friend of my dad’s was marrying a Native American woman and we were to attend two ceremonies—one Jewish, one Native American. The Jewish one was all chair-in-the-air and heaps of food and I yawned my angsty yawn, but the Native American one was new and different, and my jaded, everything-bores-me, early ’20s self sat up and paid attention.

What I remember most, beside the ochre Georgia O’Keefe landscape, was a circle of female elders with bowls in their laps, grinding corn. The scratching of the mortar on the bowl got softer and softer until there was nothing left of the dried kernels but dust. This dust was then used to bless the couple. It was explained to me that corn was used in this fashion because the staple was so important to the Native American peoples that it was thought to give long lasting fortune to the newbie pair. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that moment was what piqued my interest in, and continued fascination, with food folklore and meanings behind the meal.

Corn holds a special place in the heart of Ohioans. We are proud of our corn, it’s sweet, it’s delicious, it’s messy and juice drips down our chins.

And it’s not just the Native Americans for whom corn is an integral part of their menus and stories; it’s the entire country. Corn is everywhere—husked on our plates, churned into feed for farm animals, and the controversial syrup in everything from sweet tarts to tomato sauce.

Corn holds a special place in the heart of Ohioans as well. We are proud of our corn, it’s sweet, it’s delicious, it’s messy and juice drips down our chins. We like our corn popped, buttered, creamed, and raw.

Ohio is part of the Corn Belt, which also includes Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky. The cultivation of corn was an important part of westward expansion back in the day, so important to the growth of the U.S. that maize ears are carved into the Columbus of the U.S. Capitol Building. During the time of the expansion, tall tales surrounding the ubiquitous crop was rife. It was said that if a farmer missed a row while planting, someone close would die before harvest time. On a lighter note, if a young woman found a red cob amongst the yellow, she would be betrothed within a year.

Now, I know that if I found a red cob, I would throw it back in the pile the minute the bloody hue presented itself because Im superstitious. But one thing I know for sure is that corn is revered for a reason, and that is because it’s damn fine eating, in all its many permutations.

Besides grilling it in my own backyard—husks on, silk off, pre-soaked in water with a ribbon of milk—there are numerous restaurants that do king corn right. City Barbeque definitely rocks the corn pudding, a throwback to the creamed corn no one admits to loving, as well as a perfect, creamy, foil to their tangy ribs. At Bakersfield there is a huitlacoche taco—kindly referred to as the “corn truffle” or unkindly as “corn smut,” huitlacoche is a fungus that occasionally invades a corn plant. Revered in Mexico as a delicacy, it is mushroom-like in flavor and texture and, for vegetarians especially, is a wonderful alternative to the on-every-menu portabella.

One of the cob combos I dream about during the winter months is the magic that is Mexican corn. Grilled corn slathered (there is no other word for it) with mayonnaise, Mexican crèma, and cojita cheese, the smoky cob is then squirted with lime, and sprinkled with chili. Sounds gross, I know, but the taste is creamy and sweet, with a too messy, but here in town Los Potosinos gives me the best flashback.

Truly, the food of the gods.