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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Among the stalks

New Jersey's corn, sweet as the summer sun

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | September 19, 2001

While corn season is definitely winding down — the last ears will come off the stalk in October — New Jerseyans are still taking detours home from work at night to visit a farm stand or two, the better to prolong the sweet season.

Crop and commodity, food and fetish, corn provides the world with an alternative to rice and wheat, as well as cheap fodder for livestock. It also carries a true piece of Americana in its golden kernels.

It’s not only part of the landscape, but of the lexicon.

What other food has an adjective all its own? Corny — defined by Webster’s as “mawkishly sentimental.” (And “cornball,” one who is mawkishly sentimental.) Or corn-fed, meaning “healthy and strong but unsophisticated and provincial.” Or a celebrated song about corn being “as high as an elephant’s eye”? (From ‘Oklahoma!).

And there are no fewer than six different words to describe its parts (ear, stalk, husk, silk, kernels, cob). Face it. Corn has a starring role in everything from corncob pipes to cornhusk dolls to giant maize mazes carved into vast corn fields. It has served as a reason to party (corn huskings), been a trendy hairdo popularized by Bo Derek (corn rows), and makes a festive centerpiece at Thanksgiving (cornucopia).

In other words, corn is king — America’s original gold rush. It is, in fact, one of the most versatile vegetables — technically a grain — on the planet. Without corn, there would be no corn flakes, corn chips, cornstarch, corn oil, cornmeal, corn syrup, candy corn, or that perennially favorite food of summer, corn on the cob.

Karen Mayo of Jamesburg considers corn on the cob such a sweet indulgence that it has earned a place of honor at her house during dinnertime.

“We eat corn on the cob as dessert, at the end of the meal,” she explains. “It’s a nice, sweet way to finish a meal.”

As a child, Mayo’s family ate corn on the cob every night during the summer. Today, Mayo satisfies her intense love of corn by buying it as fresh as possible from Claire’s Farm Market in South Brunswick.

“I like to support local farmers,” she says. “And the quality is so high.”

One of the reasons the corn at Claire’s is so fresh is because it’s hand-picked. Second-generation farmer Pete Sigle claims the practice is not unusual for small farms, such as his 50-acre parcel, on which 20 acres is devoted to corn (and the rest to soy beans). A single corn stalk will typically yield two ears of corn; Sigle harvests only one ear of the two. That is because the second ear is usually not as fully formed as the first ear. The result is a succulent, sweet crop of corn that’s as ripe as can be.

“There’s something about Jersey corn,” muses Sigle. “It tastes better than other corn. People from out of state are always telling me that. It’s something in the soil. I don’t know what it is. If I did, I’d patent it.”

Ray Samulis, county agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County, whose colleagues refer to him as “Mr. Sweet Corn,” has a name for this phenomenon — “terroir.”

“When you study wine-making in France, they talk about the special climatic conditions there,” he explains. “Jersey produce, particularly corn, is the same way. It has a certain “terroir”, a fairly distinct flavor. It has something to do with the minerals in the soil and the climate here.”

In dollar amount, corn is New Jersey’s number three money maker, following tomatoes and peppers, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture — the latest figures available — 700 Jersey farmers grow sweet corn (what people eat), while 1,100 grow field corn (what’s fed to livestock).

Field corn also is used to produce commercial corn products such as corn oil, cornmeal, corn syrup and cornstarch.

Last year, New Jersey’s sweet corn yield was 10,500 pounds per acre; field corn was 134 bushels per acre. So far this year, 80,000 acres of Garden State farmland were devoted to field corn; 9,000 acres to sweet corn. Sales of field corn in New Jersey brought in $11 million in 1999; sweet corn $13 million, according to Vic Tolomeo, state statistician for New Jersey Agricultural Statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The largest-producing corn counties in New Jersey are Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester, Burlington and Hunterdon for field corn, and Salem, Burlington, Monmouth, Sussex and Atlantic for sweet corn.

Besides field corn and sweet corn, there are also two smaller categories of corn grown in New Jersey: ornamental, which is the pretty Indian corn that is popular for decorating in the fall, and popcorn.

Sigle plants his initial corn crop during the first week of April and harvests his last crop at the end of October. All the corn he grows is sold at his farm stand, where a strict “peeking only” policy is in force. Customers are permitted to strip down a tiny part of the husk on an ear of corn to peek at its kernels.

“No stripping is allowed,” he says. “If we let them strip it, they’d throw it back and nobody else would want it. Everyone wants to buy corn unhusked.”

The best-tasting corn, Sigle says, occurs when an ear’s kernels are plump and tightly arrayed together. That means the corn is full and ripe, bursting with flavor and sweetness.

Corn comes with its own history. The Indians roasted maize both with and without its husks in great underground pits. Corn meal mush and johnnycakes were staples of the early colonists. Corn holders, those special accessories for corn-on-the-cob enthusiasts, made their appearance in 1890. Of course, back then it was thought corn needed to be boiled for 25 minutes or so to bring out its flavor. Today that would be called ruining it. Modern varieties are so sweet that some, such as supersweet, can even be eaten raw. Some people, however, are still under the impression that corn needs to be boiled or steamed for 10-20 minutes. In reality, two to five minutes is all that’s required for the sweet corn that’s been bred for today’s taste buds.

Supersweet is the sweetest corn available, and that is the most common type sold in supermarkets today. That’s because, due to its intense sweetness, it has “shelf life” of five to seven days. So, corn trucked in from New England will still taste good when you bring it home. Usually, the longer corn sits around, the more its enzymes convert the sugars to starch, resulting in a steady loss of sweetness, and a more chalky flavor. The warmer it is, the faster this happens, so corn should always be refrigerated.

Corn is classified by four levels of sweetness, according to Stephen Garrison of Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Bridgeton. Sugary, or Su, is the standard sweetness. Se, which stands for sugar enhanced, is what many farmers, including Sigle, grow and sell at their stands. Supersweet is next, followed by sweet breed, which is a combination of supersweet and sugar enhanced.

Consumers seem to prefer white corn to yellow corn, says Samulis, even though there is no difference between the two in taste or sweetness. Bi-color corn, in which some of the kernels are white and some are yellow, also does not taste any different, but does look nice.

“Kids seem to like supersweet,” says Samulis. “Old-time corn eaters like a little less sugar, a little more corn flavor.” Samulis himself likes Su or Se corn. “It doesn’t have to be sickeningly sweet,” he says.

For the past couple of years, Ed Stone, executive chef and part owner of The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, has held “corn-tasting dinners,” in which every course, from appetizer (corn pancakes) to dessert (corn ice cream), has contained corn.

“You can’t beat the flavor of fresh-picked corn,” says Stone, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “You wait and wait for it to come into season, until you can finally start using it.”

Whether you boil it, steam it, roast it, grill it, or microwave it, you’ve come to the right state for America’s gold standard.