The moment of corn: Picking (and eating) corn on the cob in Wheeling, Illinois

August 8, 2011

Early Sunday morning I picked corn for the first time in my life. More importantly I experienced that rare moment that food people mythologize when talking about corn: eating a raw ear, fresh off the stalk, right in the field. They say the second an ear is picked the sugar starts converting to starch turning a crisp sweet ear tough and dull.

The reality? Exceeded a lifetime of expectations.

Warm from the morning sun, fragrant and creamy. With what seemed like my first ear of corn ever I wondered why we don’t eat corn on the cob for breakfast.

By dinner I found myself counting the hours until I could justify eating another ear. I could gorge myself on fresh corn, but I feared I wouldn’t continue to enjoy it. I can’t risk that.

This was not a “pick your own” corn field. I was the guest of farmer Mike Horcher (pronounced "horker") on the 20 acres he farms in Wheeling, about 15 miles northwest of Chicago city limits. This area was once the farmland for the city; Mike’s fields now stand across the road from a Sam’s Club.

I met Mike, his girlfriend of 10 years, Lynn Thompson, and her daughters, 17-year-old Ashley and 14-year-old Samantha. Sam should be the poster girl for the modern farm kid: tall, strong, happy, slinging burlap sacks filled with 60 ears of corn over her shoulder with effort but also a beaming smile.

“This land has been in the family for a while,” said Mike, “I have five younger brothers and we’re the fifth generation. We’ve gone here from dairy farm to hogs to vegetables. One brother and Dad do the greenhouse with flowers, annuals and perennials. And we sell vegetables at the farm stand next to greenhouse.”

The brothers also sell at area farmers markets.

“This morning I’ve already been down to Skokie to deliver stuff to one brother down there," said Mike. "And we’ve already got two trucks loaded to go the Deerfield and Buffalo Grove farmers markets. We start around 4:30 in the morning this time of the year because we have to.”

I walked through the corn rows with Mike and girls while they picked. Lynn carefully steered the wooden flatbed next to us, though some stalks had already blown flat on the ground from recent storms.

Tightly husked green ears flew through the ear but they were still clearly carefully considering each one. I asked Mike how he chooses what to pick.

“I look at the length," he said, "the husk should be nice and green with no bird damage or animal damage. With bird damage the top is shredded. Raccoons will literally rip the whole side of the cob open. Look at the brown silks, make sure they all look like they’re all there, because insects eat those and if they’re not it might not be pollinated to the tip either. That means you’ll be missing kernels on the top.”

And what he said next should change your life about how you pick an ear of corn - in the field, market, or store.

“You don’t need to open a cob,” said Mike, “You can just feel if there’s kernels missing. That’s how we have to do it for judging.”

Mike’s corn actually won the coveted Grand Champion double purple ribbons at the Lake County Fair this year, a highly unusual achievement for corn on the cob.

Back in the field to pick he said, “Grab a hold of the cob. Try to pull it straight down. Try to give it a little bit of a turn to break it off. Being it’s the morning when we always pick they’re crisp so they break really easy. If you’re doing it in the afternoon and there’s no dew it’s rubbery and spongy and it’s harder to do. And the straighter they are the easier they are too.”

“It grows around here but it's hard to harvest a lot of it because of the wildlife damage. Birds, raccoons, deer. Here you’re limited to acres. If you only have 10 acres of sweet corn they’re going to find it. If you have 500 acres of field corn around it that’s different."

Mike explained the difference between sweet and field corn.

“Sweet corn is for human consumption. Regular field corn is for animal feed, syrups, ethanol, and by-products are still used for animal feed."

And as for the old saying, "knee high by the Fourth of July?" He said, “We plant three to four varieties about every 15 days because they’re only good for about 5 days then you have to pick another variety.  We usually start planting by the end of April. We finished July 6 or 7 our last time. We started a little later than normal, we usually try by April 15.”

Mike only started growing vegetables about two years ago when the economy tanked and his landscaping business slowed down. He and Lynn opened the farm stand to give the girls something to do and a chance to earn and save some of their own money.

This year's weather has not helped. “It’s hard because everything went from so dry to so wet," said Mike. "Some of the stuff that was surviving is now flooded out. It’s a tough year but every year is a little different. You gotta take what you get for that year.”

For the past week I’ve eaten one ear every night for dinner, barely warmed in the steam over rice finishing in the cooker. I make sure it’s not too hot, then slather it in soft sweet butter and sprinkle with fleur de sel. I eat each over the rice to catch the manna that’s the fallen kernels, corn milk - cream really, butter, and salt.

I’ll get to roasted later in the year when I’m not so impatient. But then again it’s not even the height of corn season here near Chicago yet. The corn is supposed to get even better.

I'll take what I can get.