“Hey, sleepyhead! Get out of bed!” My brother Bob called down the stairs to my room in the cool basement. Though his voice was familiar, he had not been my alarm clock for many years, since he moved into town, married and started his new life.
When I came upstairs, the kitchen smelled of coffee and was filled with the families of my married sisters and brothers, moved out but not away. It was a hot Saturday morning in August on our family’s 40-acre farm in Idaho, and the corn was ready. My stepdad managed water distribution as a ditch rider for the local irrigation authority and had an agreement with a seed corn farmer on his route that our tribe could glean leftovers from the field, after the farmer’s own family had their share. In the hybrid sweet corn world, only one row out of five was allowed to keep its tassels, which provided the pollen to produce the hybrid seed. Seed from these so-called bull rows could not be sold, but the ears were succulent and sweet.
For my family, freezing corn was a multi-generational task. First off, the men would load two dust-covered Ford pickups with gunnysacks and children and take off for the fields. When I was a teenager, I got to go to the fields to pick in the morning and help out in the kitchen later on.
Picking corn is not for the faint hearted. The long, dark leaves were usually wet with dew and viciously sharp along the edges. Paper cuts had nothing on those I got walking through a field of standing corn. Pants and long-sleeved shirts are a necessity in weather that begs – even early on a summer morning in Idaho – for shorts and tank tops.
Luckily, an irrigation canal ran close to the field where we could take a refreshing dip before heading home, sitting atop bags of fresh corn stacked in the bed of the truck.
Once back at the farm it was time for shucking. The backyard was cluttered with people, pans and sacks, and soon enough, rows and rows of sweet yellow ear corn accumulated on the trays we used to deliver them to the house. As the stack of cornhusks grew tall, the men and youngsters knew that they were almost done – the work load soon shifted entirely to the kitchen. And when my oldest brother returned from delivering a full tray of ears with a warm buttery reward, we all ran into the kitchen to stand in line to get our first – but not last – sample of the day.
When the corn was all inside the house, the men would sit back, drink adult beverages and watch the younger children play on the old iron swing set or in the round watering trough my parents bought to use as a swimming pool. I, however, was sent to the kitchen to help the women.
The kitchen was uncomfortably warm, with large kettles of water boiling to blanch the corn. A little relief came from box fans that moved the hot air around, replacing it with different hot air from the back porch. Once blanched, we transferred the corn, cob by cob, into a sink filled with cold water to quickly stop the cooking process. The cold water also made it possible for us to hold onto the ears while cutting kernels off the cob. Next, we stuffed those piles of sweet kernels into freezer bags and sealed them with a twisty tie. No zip-lock freezer bags back then!
“Watch your fingers,” my mom always said, looking worried when I moved from bagging to replace my sister on the cutting line. I loved this part of the process, using the sharp, thick knife that I thought looked like a machete from Africa. Maybe my mom had reason to worry since I was rarely thinking about what I was doing, making up stories in my head instead. But I loved cutting corn, and the meaty remains left on the cob made a wonderful treat.
Within short order, the accumulating bags of corn were divided up according to each family’s needs. Often this figure was determined by when they had run out the previous year. “Well, I took 20 last year and ran out in April. I guess I’ll take 30, which should last all year,” my sister calculated, knowing that if she ran out, she could come and steal from my mom’s deep freeze. I counted out 30 bags that year and put them in a sack for her to take home.
Canning, freezing and drying were all part of my family’s heritage, putting away the summer’s bounty for the upcoming winter. My mom grew up on a farm carved out of the Indian lands in South Dakota, and my stepdad had been a Depression baby from Oklahoma. We were taught that putting up summer’s harvest was part of the annual cycle. And our one day of hard work with the corn was celebrated when we opened that first package around Thanksgiving, tasting sweet summer in every bite.
My mom and stepdad no longer own the small farmhouse where I grew up, but Mom still cans every summer. And although their garden has become smaller, they still have food to share. Most of my siblings and I have moved far from home, but memories of corn-freezing come back whenever I pass a roadside stand selling the sweet ears by the dozen.
Maybe this year, I’ll stop and take a Saturday to put away the taste of summer. If we eat corn once a week, I’ll need 52 pints. How many dozen is that?
Lynn Salisbury now lives in Illinois, 1,600 miles from the cornfields of her childhood. She drives by fields of corn each day on her way to work, and when she’s not working or driving, she enjoys attending the small-town festivals and farmer’s markets in the area.