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It's My Favorite Season, When the Corn Stalks are Tall and Green, the Tassels are Blowing in the Wind, and Corn-on-the-Cob is a Daily Treat

Monday 05 June 2017 at 10:57 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 1, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Maybe it’s because I grew up in Dime Box, where planting corn was second only to planting cotton, but, in any case, this time of year in East Bernard is one of my favorite times, -- when the corn stalks are tall and green, and the tassels are blowing in the wind. And, even more exciting, when you come to the crossroads of 90A and 60, you are welcomed into town by one or two pickup trucks with their beds overflowing with sweet corn (and maybe sometimes, field corn).

            Back in Dime Box, in the good old days, my mother was the only person I ever knew who believed the best-tasting corn-on-the-cob was field corn. Like other “right-minded” human beings, this time of year, my mouth always waters in anticipation of eating tender, sweet ears of sweet corn. Neither my father, nor my brother, nor I could ever understand or tolerate Mama’s zest for field corn-on-the-cob. However, it wasn’t always possible to keep her from growing it, boiling it, and serving it.

            Over the years, often whenever I’ve told city folks about this corn dichotomy in our family, they thought corn was corn; and so I’d have to explain to them the difference between sweet corn and field corn. I earned my credentials for explaining the difference by the many, many hours I spent shelling field corn on an old-timey hand-crank sheller.

            In the corn patches, field corn stalks are taller and have more leaves than sweet corn, sweet corn being shorter and rather spindly-looking. Usually the kernels of field corn are a darker yellow and larger than the kernels of sweet corn. When you eat it on the cob, field corn is not as sweet-tasting as sweet corn, and not nearly as juicy, so naturally most of us like sweet corn better.

            The farmers in Dime Box when I was a kid grew lots of field corn, because it had many uses, one of which was as animal food. Just as important was to have the field corn processed or “milled.” There was actually a corn mill in downtown Dime Box (this was probably true of every farming community in the whole South). To be processed, corn had to be very dry, and that’s the reason field corn is harvested quite a bit later than sweet corn.

            These corn mills, or “grist” mills, as I think they were called, would process the corn into either corn meal or corn flour, the flour being finer and smoother than the meal. Because corn meal was so abundant in Texas and the rest of the South, corn bread became a staple for most people. Early Texans, as well as early Europeans settling in the other Americas, learned how to make corn bread from the native Americans, who, from the earliest of times were capable of stone-grinding their field corn. Corn was so important to the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, worshipping various “corn gods” was common.

            My grandmother even mixed corn meal with hog grease, and fed it to her dogs. The thought of that would make any modern-day veterinarian shudder!

            Not so much in Texas, and certainly not in Dime Box, folks in the Deep South would use corn to make hominy and corn whiskey or “moonshine.” Hominy, which I remember eating as a child, is made from dried field corn. The dried field corn is soaked and cooked in a solution of water and wood ash or slaked lime. Somehow the process causes those white popcorn-like kernels to develop. It’s funny, because I always thought as a child that hominy was made from popcorn.

            Corn whiskey or “moonshine” was distilled from the mash of field corn. In the early days, country folks used a simple still, consisting of a boiler to cook the mash and a condenser to collect and cool the alcohol vapor back to a liquid. Apparently everybody who made and sold moonshine and who bought moonshine knew that three X’s (XXX) on a jug meant the jug contained moonshine. Three X’s meant the moonshine had been run through the still three times, and thus was pure alcohol. Eventually, mason jars were used instead of jugs. Perhaps the jugs got to be too recognizable by the Revenue men.

            The widespread popularity of an old “slave song,” which later became a folk song, is one of many examples of how important corn was in daily American life, especially Southern life. In the song, a slave is wrongly held responsible for his master’s death until it is discovered that a horsefly (“blue-tailed fly”) caused the plantation owner’s horse to buck and throw its rider. The song says, “Jimmy cracked (milled) corn, and I don’t care.” It is assumed he milled corn to make moonshine. Well, the song never made any sense to me, and still doesn’t, but it does show the popularity and importance of corn in American life.

            Ever other day, during this wonderful sweet corn-on-the-cob season, I ask my wife, ‘Did you stop at the intersection and get us some more corn to eat?” And, every other day, she asks me the same thing.

-0-

 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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