August 2008 Issue
Kernels of Truth
For one Ohioan, the harvest is a time to put down roots.
People say corn is a vegetable. They are partly right.
Corn in Millersport means tractor pulls and hog races. Corn in Wilmington is an antiques show on the county fairgrounds. Sweet corn sparks a bicycle sprint up hills as unforgiving as the cyclists’ Spandex uniforms in Richfield, while Strasburg stages a basketball tournament.
Ohioans are a hardworking people, but all we need to throw a party is enough time to line up the marching band. In the weeks between the harvest and the first fall chill, a dozen corn festivals will blossom in any dry space from Mt. Gilead to Marietta. I plan to follow that Spice Trail again this year, if the weather is willing and gas prices don’t rise.
I already know how it will be.
There will be a parking lot carved out of a softball field, striped in chalk and lined with plastic cones. The operation will be run by the high school marching band or the senior class, raising money for new tubas or a trip to Washington, D.C.
There will be a folding table at the gate presided over by a stern woman in cat’s-eye glasses. An auxiliary policeman will cast a watchful eye over a cigar-box cash register, and passing folks will say how handsome Mrs. So-and-So’s boy looks in his uniform.
There will be a sign announcing “We’re All Ears!” or something like that.
There will be music. A band will send Porter Wagoner or Jay-Z drifting over the grounds, although it will take a good minute to figure out which one it is. People will applaud, because they are neighbors and, besides, music lessons don’t grow on trees, you know. I will clap along, badly, because I keep time like a two-dollar watch.
There will be cloggers in wooden shoes. I will not even pretend.
There will be people sitting on the hard benches of picnic tables, or under tents, waiting for the main attraction, tasting nothing but anticipation. The merits of steamed corn vs. roasted will be debated. Sides will be taken.
In my mind, I will time-travel.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, folks squeezed something green out of the available city dirt. Men who rolled steel in the heat of the furnaces all day thought nothing of sweating in their back yards past sunset, fussing over their tomato stakes. Women tended their plots with babies under one arm, growing supper from dime-store seeds in spaces no bigger than a bath mat. One old lady raised sunflowers so tall they nodded over the garage roofs. Even in the poorest windows, flower boxes bloomed. It was as though folks believed the sun would forget to shine if they did not give it a reason to return.
I, too, feel the pull of the dirt.
It is in my blood. I am descended from a garden gloveful of green thumbs. During the Great Depression, my grandfather twined grapevines in a rusty fence and sweetened both hard times and the disposition of his neighbors with the wine he made.
I remember my mother willing roses out of the poor clay alongside our garage, battling beetles and blight and the plastic soldiers my brother and I buried in her flowerbeds.
My uncle fought in the Pacific during the worst of World War II. He is past 80 now, but still tugs a vegetable garden — patiently, gently, masterfully — out of his yard. His knees give him trouble, but there is no one within walking distance who goes hungry in August (I believe some neighbors have learned to elbow-walk past their windows and become deaf to their own doorbells, lest they overdose on gift zucchini).
Their skill was not inherited (I may be the only person ever to have killed silk flowers). It is not something I miss much looking out an apartment window. For me, hot weather has come to mean chewing gum on the sidewalk and melting asphalt. Summer in the city is something that sticks to your shoes.
But I did not come to chew on the past. I would miss too much now.
There will be corn-eating contests. It is impossible for a pompous man to look dignified while eating corn on the cob. If sports are meant to build character, then corn-eating should be an Olympic event.
Folks will race outhouses on wheels or bathtubs or just feet. Pigs will fly along racecourses.
People will judge beautiful babies and peach preserves. They will munch peanut brittle and pick at cotton candy bought from stands gussied up like medieval castles.
There will be a coronation. The reigning Queen of the Cob will pass the crown to a new Sweet Corn Sweetheart. Folks will say what a fine young lady miss so-and-so turned out to be and how grown up she looks, and her momma will weep a little, for reasons only mommas know.
There might be a midway. Children will ride the Rock-O-Plane so high into the summer sky, they will not be able to see the new school year looming below.
Mostly, there will be sweet corn.
Think of the best corn you’ve ever eaten, and you will find that taste a docile thing when you sample Ohio sweet corn in its natural habitat. “Mouthwatering” does not do it justice. The only way to get it fresher would be to haul a lawn chair out into the spring rows, and wait. It is served with butter and salt, and a pinch of ground-up magic.
Here is the magical part: In a tent full of strangers, I am drawn back home. I smell the damp-earth aroma of the surrounding countryside, and I am back in a garden, watching my grandmother inspect her flowers like a general reviewing the troops. I see my mother, in a straw hat and garden gloves, smiling and young again for an afternoon. I know I am the same blood, then, even if I cannot grow squat.
Like them, I plant my dreams in rows.
At dusk, drooling infants will be tossed over shoulders, and people will say it’s time to “be gettin’ on.” That is the moment to pull back the husk of a town. I usually ask directions to the nearest courthouse. You can tell a lot about a town by looking at its courthouse. If there is a park bench nearby, sunset is a fine show.
In Strasburg, I will visit the Garver Bros. store, which has been in the dry-goods business since Noah left the ark. In Millersport, I will look up my favorite street name, Refugee Street, and be glad that no one has seen fit to change it. I always marvel at the marquee of the Murphy Theater in Wilmington. Some years back they shot a movie called “Lost in Yonkers” here. The filmmakers thought the Murphy recalled New York in the 1940s, but it just looks like downtown Wilmington to me.
Sometimes I stumble over treasure.
I recall a sign beside a take-out restaurant that read “Rivers Wanted.” I suppose a “d” had just dropped off the first word. But it made me smile the way it was. It still does.
New memories will take root alongside the old ones.
I will return, thankful for the festivals and fields that have survived another year. They could vanish. Some people think they should.
In his bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan says that with a corn-based agriculture, we are poisoning ourselves and killing the planet. I don’t know. Other folks — smart people, too — say we should be turning our corn into ethanol to power our cars. I don’t know about that, either. I think that if you could figure a way to make gasoline out of crabgrass or poison oak, then you would really have something.
I would probably fill my tank anyway, just to go looking for sweet corn.
I will consider such matters when winter claws at my windows like a mean dog. Now there is a blue sky and a warm breeze. Somewhere a kettle the size of a bathtub is being fired up.
Pass the butter.