Sweet Corn Is Too Sweet—Here's How to Fix That

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 7 2013 5:55 PM

Dinner vs. Child: Taking the Sweet out of Sweet Corn

Corn chowder.

Photo by James Ransom

Dinner vs. Child is a biweekly column about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children, originally published in Food52 and now appearing on Brow Beat.

Eating your vegetables is easier than it used to be.

I do not expect this argument to convince your children. (Although if you added And I had to walk 10 miles in the snow to eat them, that would totally work.) But it has been empirically verified: My son Isaiah’s produce section is sweeter than the produce section of my childhood.   

This applies to far too many fruits and vegetables, but let’s take, most obviously, sweet corn. When I ate my first ear of sweet corn, it was still the sweet corn my father ate. The dominant variety today—a supersweet hybrid out of Illinois—was grown by almost no one. It is now grown by almost everyone and sold everywhere. The rush to refrigerate and consume sweet corn as fast as you humanly can, before all the sugars flee into starch, is advice for another time and genome. Isaiah’s sweet corn is literally a different vegetable than mine was.

I was thinking about this recently when I made a lovely corn-centric summer weekend pasta and an argument broke out over whether I was cooking starch with a starch sauce. It was only later that I realized what I was really cooking: starch with a dessert sauce.

Amanda Hesser's Summer Weekend Pasta.

Photo by James Ransom


All of which is a long way of saying that 9 out of 10 children prefer sweet corn. And that their parents end up eating an acre of it. When winter comes I will lust for a single ear of local corn, but I cannot eat another right now. So I have disguised it.

Corn chowder is the bastard, landlocked cousin of the original maritime chowders, and its modern descendents like New England clam chowder and Manhattan chowder, all of which have some sort of salty terroir. Corn chowder has no terroir; if it had any terroir, it would be Iowan, which is really not where chowder is supposed to come from. But even 50 Chowders author Jasper White calls corn chowder “the indisputable king of farmhouse chowders,” and there is no shame in listening to a New Englander like Jasper White.

Corn chowder is also, at long last, a meal in itself. Summer is the season of many small things on the table, each of which we cherish, like parents doting on small children, for its own unique characteristics. We love them just as they are: We love the tomato most when it is most like a tomato.

But after months of idol worship—let us all praise the perfectly ripe peach—it is restorative to smash everything together until every ingredient is subordinated to the greater good. No, you are not special, I tell the vegetables. You are a corn chowder cog.

It is a relief to enter the season of single-dish meals. Lately Isaiah, trained by the meals of summer, has started to complain whenever dinner does not consist of numerous dishes. “But we usually have LOTS OF THINGS,” he says, as if we sit down to a spread of banchan every night. The other night we made a clean break: I set a table of three bowls and spoons, like we were eating in a Dickens novel. Every bowl was clean. 

A word about the cornstarch, which you may find vaguely unaesthetic: use it. A proper corn chowder shouldn’t flow like broth. It should have an autumnal weight on your spoon; it should huddle together for warmth.

Corn Chowder
Lightly adapted from Jasper White's
 50 Chowders
This recipe serves 3-4

4 ears fresh corn
4 ounces bacon, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium red pepper, diced
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold, diced into ½-inch pieces
3 cups chicken stock (or a rich vegetable stock)
2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.



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