When my sister and I were kids, my mom used to put us to work at various points throughout the summer helping her prep vegetables for freezing. She used to do a lot of canning, originally. Probably before we came along, or before we were big enough to help. Or before she and my father bought that really big stand-up freezer and put it in the basement. I think it maybe just became easier to pack things in the freezer in plastic containers than to can them. I don’t know.
All I know is, my sister, me, and our friend, Dolores, if she was at the house, became extremely cheap labor.
We’d be put to work shelling peas or snapping beans or shucking corn. My mother would take the shelled or snapped or shucked results, blanch them maybe, or just measure them out in little plastic bags or lidded containers and Dad or one of us kids would tote them down to the basement and line them up on the white shelves.
My favorite was the corn. I loved the summery taste of it in February, when there was snow and ice outside and no sign of a garden anywhere, when the old radiators in the house got very hot and made clanking noises as the hot air surged through them, when the windows in the kitchen would fog up when Mom made a big vat of stew or a pot roast on a Sunday.
I also liked the look of the corn. How, instead of a bag of lots of individual kernels of corn – like you’d get from the grocery store – our bags had little sections of conjoined niblets, just like when Mom sliced them off the cob. I think it just said “summer” to me.
What would happen, was Mere, Dolores and I would sit out on the back steps, or on the little back porch, with the bushel basket of corn from Schartner Farm on one side of us, a bowl or bag for the husks in the middle, and a platter for the cleaned corn on the other side. We’d sit there in our shorts and tee shirts, shucking the husks off and picking off stray strands of silk from the ears. Mom would make us lunch – sandwiches of some kind and potato chips, probably – and we would talk and laugh and eat and work.
Mom would take the shucked corn into the kitchen and, a few at a time, drop the ears into a pot of boiling water for a minute or two, just to partially cook them before freezing them. Then she’d stand the ears, one at a time, on end on the wooden cutting board and slice the kernels off in wide, nubbly strips. Then she’d scoop up the kernels and divvy them up between little plastic bags. I don’t remember if she measured them out by the cup or by weight. The little opened plastic bags of corn would sit on a tray, wisps of steam rising from the cooling niblets, until the tray was full and the corn had cooled enough to go into the freezer.
Next, she’d press the air out of the bags and twist the open end tightly and then double it over and secure it with a little white twist tie. The bags were squat and yellowy and lumpy, with little tight twisty loops above. Down to the basement they’d go, and I used to like lining them up on a shelf or on one of the narrower shelves of the door. I think it appealed to my rather obsessive and rigid personality. It still does.
Sometimes when Mom was slicing the corn, she’d hand us pieces of the sections of kernels to eat. I remember holding them carefully, partly because they were still hot, and partly because I didn’t want the fragile puzzle piece to break apart before I got it into my mouth. It tasted so good. No butter or salt or anything – just super fresh, barely cooked, local corn.
On Friday a friend and her 3 kids and Julia and I went to the local farmers’ market. I brought a couple of empty bags with me. Wasn’t sure what I was going to get, though I figured I’d get some more goat milk and maybe some corn. We also planned a picnic lunch. Well, as it turned out, my goat milk guy wasn’t there that day, so no milk. But. There was plenty of corn. I scouted around to see what corn was selling for, and I was quite happy to discover that Shartner Farm was there and their corn was both bigger and less expensive than some of the other farms. It was meant to be.
I paid for 4 dozen ears, and after the woman working there handed me back my change, I started filling my bags. I might have been better off with 3 bags, but hey, I only have two hands anyway, so it really wouldn’t have mattered. Both bags were filled to capacity, and I willed the little nicks and frayed bits along the straps not to split or rip until I was home. I could just imagine the entertaining image of me scrambling around gathering dozens of loose ears of corn, my useless, strapless bags lying on the ground. Not something I wanted to happen.
Amazingly, the bags held, despite the great weight, and I scurried carefully across the field to where my friend’s car was parked. I loaded the corn into the back and then went back to eat lunch with the others. As I’d asked, the straps of one bag waited until we were in my driveway before they broke.
I was home around eleven or so, and I set to work immediately. We were going to another family’s house for dinner at four or so, and I needed – all by myself – to bring water to a boil, shuck all the corn, blanch it, slice it, pack it, and get it into the freezer and then take a shower before it was time to go. I’d have asked Julia for help (Bill and Alex had gone fishing), but I also had plans for the corn husks and I didn’t want them torn during the shucking process.
What plans? Tamales. Rather than spend silly amounts of money in a store for dried corn husks, I figured I’d dry my own and we’d have them on hand for the next time (soon) we need to wrap tamales.
So…I needed to shuck carefully, but quickly, and I didn’t want the husks to split in the process. And after a bit of trial and error, I figured out the best way to accomplish this.
I held the corn with the stalk end up, and, with a sharp paring knife, I sliced around the circumference of the husk, right at the point where I could feel the wide, bottom edge of the corn.
Sometimes I’d slice too deeply and lose a bit of the corn in the process.
It worked out nicely, actually – by the time the first (smallest) pot of water started to boil, I’d shucked all the corn.
I put 4—6 ears of corn in each pot as it boiled, put the lid on to keep the heat in, and let the corn boil for just two minutes. Then I picked the ears out, dropped them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking, and stacked them on a tray.
I cleared some space and started slicing. I decided that the corn sprayed less and I did a better job of slicing if I broke each ear in half first.
Look! Conjoined kernels!
After all the slicing and dividing up, I ended up with 14 bags, each containing about a pound of corn. And into the freezer they went.
Fourteen pounds of sliced corn. Not a bad haul!
I also ended up with far more corn husks than I probably need. I hung the husks in batches of five from our clothesline.
They’ve been drying like that since Friday. Today I’ll take them down, I think, and let the little bent parts that were under the clothespins finish drying. And then I’ll bag them up and store them in the pantry.
I think I need to make tamales soon.