Along with baseball games and swimming holes, sweet corn is synonymous with summer in the Midwest. As tasseling stalks stretch straight and tall, we anxiously check for drying silks. Then, with mouthwatering smiles, we greet golden platters of corn-on-the-cob.
Hands down, the Heartland grows more sweet corn than any other region. Wisconsin and Minnesota lead the way in production (more than 1.1 million tons annually combined). But Illinois ranks No. 1 in corn festivals. Every year, thousands flock to the town of Hoopeston, 100 miles south of Chicago, to feast on buttery ears.
"Hot corn! Hot corn!" echoes the cry as crowds push toward mounds of sunshine-colored ears slathered in butter. Ready with every kind of container--from cardboard boxes and backpacks to oven roasters and picnic coolers--thousands of munchers gather for the National Sweet Corn Festival in this farming and canning community.
During last year's celebration, corn-crazy throngs devoured or carried home 42 1/2 tons of lip-smacking ears, cooked to perfection with the help of an old-fashioned steam engine. As one butter-drenched bystander punned, "It's complete cornage."
Twelve thousand acres of sweet corn surround Hoopeston (population 6,400). That's enough to keep two shifts at the Stokely USA corn-canning plant humming all summer.
The approaching end of the sweet-corn season signals the start of Hoopeston's festival (Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 this year). Launched in 1938, the festival attracted an estimated 60,000 last year. ("A conservative guess," insists Dave Barker, last year's festival chairman.)
Free corn-on-the-cob highlights the last three days of the celebration. Naturally, there's a big corn-eating competition.
"The winner in the adult division usually chomps more than five ears in the alloted three minutes," says contest organizer John Sales Jr.
But free corn isn't the only festival attraction. McFerren Park teems with carnival rides, kids' games, concerts, demolition derbies, a national beauty pageant, a classic-car exhibit, a flea market, a fishing derby, and a talent and art show.
The competition is formidable. Over at the horseshoe pits, for example, contestants come from 100 miles away every year.
Competitors at the top rung of the six-class ladder throw ringers 65% to 75% of the time. (Pitch a ringer with at least one of every five throws and you can qualify for the lowest level of competition.)
Hoopeston Jaycees, who organize the event, donate all proceeds to local charities. Everyone in town contributes something.
The festival hits its stride on Saturday, when a big parade winds through town to McFerren Park. Parade enthusiasts line the curbs. As the procession sweeps past the town's two canneries and a can-making plant, Stokely employees and others unfortunate enough to have to work their regular jobs during the busy sweet-corn harvest season lean from open windows to cheer.
The crowning glory of the festival is the National Sweetheart Pageant, spawned by a local Miss Sweet Corn competition. Four past National Sweethearts have been named Miss America, proving that Hoopeston judges know how to pick more than sweet corn.
Twenty-two Miss America hopefuls from states as far away as Alaska and Maine entered the competition last year.
During all the goings-on, the ears keep bubbling. How do you cook 42 1/2 tons of sweet corn? "First," says Steve Eyrich, who works for a Hoopeston firm that manufactures canning equipment, "you get an old-fashioned steam engine and replumb it."
The massive iron monster, belching black coal smoke amid rising clouds of shimmering steam, circulates boiling water through a series of shiny cattle troughs. Jaycee volunteers dunk basketfuls of fresh sweet corn--which an antique shucking machine husks--into the steamy bath. After that, the volunteers dump the corn into huge pans and hand-butter the ears using giant brushes.
Corn-loving throngs that gather watch each step, as if the ears were crisp $20 bills. Finally comes the shout everyone is waiting to hear: "Hot corn! Hot corn!" And after that, it's everyone for himself.
When summer gets steamy, team up these two abundant Midwest vegetables in a cool salad.
SPICY CORN-STUFFED TOMATO SALAD
6 small, ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup creamy buttermilk dressing
2 tablespoons snipped parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Dash ground red pepper
2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels
1/2 cup shredded Jack cheese
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup chopped onion
Place tomatoes, stem end down, on cutting surface. Cut each into 4 to 6 wedges, cutting to, but not through, stem end. Spread wedges apart slightly and sprinkle with salt. Cover and chill.
Combine buttermilk dressing, parsley, black pepper and red pepper in small mixing bowl and mix well.
Combine corn, cheese, greenpepper, cucumber and onion in separate bowl. Add dressing mixture, tossing gently to coat. Cover and chill.