Monday, July 14, 2008


This year I grew a big patch of sweetcorn and it did really well. In past years I've had to "sleep" in the patch to keep the coons from looting and pilaging it first. Last year there a rain came on ripening night so I grabbed up my blanket, foam pad and pillow and ran inside. The next morning the corn stalks were rode over, the shucks shredded, and the ears gnawed by little rows of coon teeth. No wonder they have masks. And I'm pretty sure the looters are descended from Edgar, one of three orphans that I raised.

So this year as the corn ripening hour approached I was in a fit of paranoia. Each evening I would check the silks to see how close the corn was to being ready to pick, and wonder if tonight would be the night of the strike. How did they know, anyway? It must be smell - I could sense them sniffing somewhere in the shrubbery.

But this year, miraculously, no raccoons - and yesterday evening Cebah and I picked all the corn that was ready, about half of what's there. We cut it off the cob, heated it through, just, with some butter and salt, let it cool down and bagged it for freezing. It won't be as good as fresh corn, but it will be, as Cebah says, "Better than a snowball."

What a cornball she is. When we finished shucking and silking I turned around to see she had gone cornfield blond. Ha!

To celebrate what some South-eastern tribes call the "Green Corn Ceremony" - that is, festivities of gratitude associated with the ripening and first harvest of the corn, I made green corn tamales for lunch. I cut off the corn and whirred it up in the food processor with some salt, and a little instant masa since sweet corn doesn't have quite as much starch as the older varieties of "indian corn" or field, or dent, as it's called, do. The Cherokee would have pounded it up with a heavy wooden mortar and pestle called a Ka No Na.

Once the corn was pureed, I wrapped double tablespoons of it in the shucks and steamed them for a half hour, until they were (barely) solidified.

To go with the tamales I made a salsa of Zapotec tomatoes, purple onion, garlic, avocado, lime juice, salt, and wildly aromatic cilantro from the garden. This was very good.

Here's what James Mooney, an ethnologist who lived with the Cherokee in the late 1800s, wrote concerning the green corn:

"...the Green Corn dance, preliminary to eating the first new corn, was the most solemn tribal function, a propitiation and expiation for the sins of the past year, an amnesty for public criminals, and a prayer for happiness and prosperity for the year to come. Only those who had properly prepared themselves by prayer, fasting, and purification were allowed to take part in this ceremony, and no one dared to taste the new corn until then. ...In eating the first new corn after the Green Corn dance, care was taken not to blow upon it to cool it, for fear of causing a wind storm to beat down the standing crop in the field."

Both corn and mother are "Selu" in Cherokee, and the first woman, original mother of humanity, was also the source of this wonderful plant and its life-sustaining food. But that's another story.

Just for the record, we did not blow on our tamales - it wasn't necessary - and I am for raccoon amnesty, and of course I wish all my gentle readers happiness and prosperity and sweet corn in the coming year.


Kim said...

I can never seem to find that perfect point at which to pick corn... Can you share the secret? Mine's at least 2 weeks away, but I want to be ready!!

Miss Cellania said...

You've made me hungry. And my corn won't be ripe for probably three weeks, since I was late getting it out!

Kim said...

Welcome miss cellania! (I share an office with William) Yes! I agree. I wanted to just pick up that plate of salsa and eat it!

Dan Dutton said...

When the silks begin to turn from soft and tender gold to dry & dreadlock brown, then the corn is at perfection. There should still be a little yellow at the base of the silk, if you want the corn at its sweetest. The browner the silk, the starchier the corn.

Oh miss cellania, I'd beam you some ears thru cyber-space if I only could!

Kim said...

I commented to William that tamales didn't sound very appealing since they were just corn mush, but he quickly corrected me, raving about the excellency of your tamales. He said they were so good, that they were worth inviting myself over to try them. I like corn as much as the next person, but I just can't see how pureed corn can be so great...

Dan Dutton said...

Well, hm, some transformation does take place between the state of mushed corn and tamale - technically speaking I suppose a tamale is a type of steamed bread... so I'm going to take the easy out with this and say that it's the steam that works magic on the starch, solidifying it while retaining just enough tenderness, so that it's "firm but yielding" as so many toothsome things are, or should be.

I'm glad William remembers my tamales fondly - they're a food for celebrations - a bit "tinkery" to prepare, as Cathy says.

Dan Dutton said...

I think the tamales that William had probably had a filling, most likely shredded pork seasoned with red chile. Or chicken, maybe. There are some sweet fillings, but I haven't made those. I think green corn tamales are the only "unfilled" kind.
Perhaps Cathy can fill us in?

Cathy said...

As far as I know, uchepos and corundas, both from Michoacan, are the only unfilled tamales. (I think the latter are larger and triangular in shape; there may be other differences.) They're typically made with field corn, which is starchier than sweet corn.

I'll have to ask the hunky Mexican chef next time I see him.

Dan Dutton said...

Yeah, ask him about filled versus unfilled tamales. Use a corny, husky tone. (He is pretty darn cute.)

Field corn would work better. You would'nt have to add anything - masa, or cornstarch, to get them to set up.

I had some of the really gelatinous kind in Vallodolid and they were SO good. Filled tho - with chicken AND a hard-boiled egg.

Cathy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cathy said...

Eh, sorry, technical error.

I'll ask Rancho Gordo too - he knows as much about Mexican cuisine as El Jefe Hunk.

William said...

Ok, raccoons get amnesty, but sometime you should share your account of trying to blast the gofers out of your garden a few years back.

Dan Dutton said...

I'll share that story as soon as my eyebrows grow back.