Exiled for life to a desert island with the choice of only one food to take along, it would be a close call for me between those summer soul-mates of culinary delight, corn and tomatoes.
I'd likely choose corn, for its greater life-sustaining ability, for its versatility and for the pure joy of its consumption in all its myriad and delightful forms.
I am a true "cornaholic," a "cornamaniac." I never met an ear of corn or a corn dish I didn't like--that is, of course, if the corn has left the field recently enough to preserve all or most of its sweet and tender character.
As is true with tomatoes, there is no fruit or vegetable where there is such a profound and dismaying disparity between the common commercial store bought variety of corn and that which has been picked recently from the stalk.
The quality of corn, in fact, can be measured exactly in proportion to the time elapsed between its picking and its eating.
Corn's truly addicted snobs say with dogmatic certainty that there's only one way to enjoy corn to the absolute max; rush it fresh-picked from the field to the boiling pot in less than 30 seconds.
Battle of the Corn
Such perfect bliss can be achieved by only a fortunate few (me among them, at least briefly in the summer, for I have a small back-yard garden). But as the word has spread to more and more previously naive urbanites about the unbridgeable chasm between good corn and bad corn, suburban roadside stands selling something closely approximating the real thing have proliferated around Southern California. (For their names, call the local County Farm Adviser.) These outdoor markets are generally operated by small farmers who grow their own corn, tomatoes and other summertime delights. My favorite such spot, owing to its reasonably close proximity to my West Los Angeles home, is the Tapia Bros. Produce stand just at the foot of the Havenhurst Ave. exit off the Ventura Freeway in Encino.
The Tapia Bros. lease 100 acres of land in the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin adjacent to their open-air stand, and stagger their plantings so that they have fresh corn available--meaning corn picked in the early morning of the same day you can buy it--from early June right on through mid-November. Corn matures in 80 to 90 days, so the Tapia fields ripening in June are plowed under and replanted so that they yield another crop in August--and so on.
The Tapia Bros.--Felix, Charles and Seferino--inherited their business from their father, who started it in 1925. They grow and sell a variety of yellow corn called Jubilee, and it is pure pleasure, though not as sweet and tender, to my taste anyway, as white corn, such as Silver Queen and Shoe Peg.
White corn is much harder to come by in California than yellow. Growers don't plant it as much because of its brief shelf life. It is not a durable corn. At its perfect peak, white corn is so sweet and tender that a bite sets off tiny explosions of ecstasy in your mouth, but after that apex, which lasts for only two or three days, the quality drops alarmingly. The kernels get too big and tough and the milk turns mushy.
In my native South, corn lovers plant or buy only white varieties for their own eating. The yellow stuff is disdained as "mule corn," fit only for the livestock. In my garden I grow only white corn--generally two or three staggered plantings of 25 or so stalks each. Harvest time is pure heaven, but the downside of growing corn is that you wake up one morning with 50 ears suddenly on your hands that must be eaten right now, or else forget it.
I can only manage six ears at a serious pig-out sitting, eight perhaps if I pass up everything else on the table. My family and friends--not nearly the corn gluttons I am--can't stem the rest of the tidal wave of ripening ears, so I have cut back on corn growing and instead rely mainly on the Tapia Bros. and occasional other connections for the approximately 175 ears I will put away every summer.
There are, increasingly, fancy-food markets that sell white corn, and it isn't half bad, though quite expensive--about 50 cents an ear, compared to 25 cents or 30 cents an ear at most stands.
Places on my side of town such as the Bel Air Market Place on Sepulveda Blvd., Vicente Foods on San Vicente Blvd. and Tanaka's Produce on Montana Ave., now have white corn through the summer. It is packed in ice (heat coagulates the juices) and shipped in from the Coachella Valley and the Monterey area, hitting the stores within two or three days of picking. It's not superb, but it's worth the price, if you lust for white corn--and if it passes one simple test to assure that it is at least passably edible; pull back the husk and stab your fingernail into a kernel. If it squirts juice, you're in business. If it doesn't, don't waste your money. It's that simple.
And now for the preparation; there's only one way to seriously ruin corn, and that's to overcook it. Too much cooking will turn even the most succulent ears into a mushy and tasteless mess.