The Cult of Silver Queen: Contemplating corn and the summer meal

I am a little embarrassed to say I come from a thieving family–corn thieving to be precise. While visiting us in central Virginia, my grandma Helen got wind of a cornfield on the other side of a patch of woods at the end of our street. I had come across it while out roaming on my Miss America bicycle, and then mentioned it at dinner. The next morning, she announced she was going for a walk.

Grandma Helen, though she was a country girl, was also a bit of a glamour puss (first to wear lipstick in Buffalo, Kentucky they say). So, a morning constitutional through the woods to a cornfield did not involve sensible shoes, but rather Lucite slip-on wedge heels. With varnished nails, lipstick, and her hair in curlers under a scarf, she set off. She returned an hour later with an armload of corn. Scolded by my mother, she simply said, “They can’t possibly eat all that corn themselves.”

This legacy of corn-zeal gives me the cred to broach a topic sensitive to Marylanders–their ornery devotion to Silver Queen corn.

I arrived in Baltimore in 1991 and was soon enamored with Maryland’s fierce dedication to tradition, and the embrace of “pleasant living.” I was particularly drawn to the summer ritual of going “downee ocean.” My family, too, journeyed to the shore every summer when I was a kid, through oddly-named towns like Disputanta, through peanut and ham country into North Carolina, with stops for corn, tomatoes, and peaches before eventually reaching the Outer Banks. Making the pilgrimage to Ocean City, for the first time, I was struck by the distinctness of each phase of the drive: grimy city to interstate, the Bay and its bridge opening before you, vast farmland punctuated by farm stands and sleepy towns, and then at last, the Atlantic.

Just as my folks had done, we stopped at a farm stand, both coming and going, for fresh produce. We wanted some of that celebrated Silver Queen, which, according to word on the Baltimore street, tasted best when grown in the sandy soils of the Eastern Shore. We paid for it (unlike Helen), took it home, shucked it, cooked it, slathered it with butter, sprinkled it with salt, and devoured it.

What I can say without a doubt is that we purchased sweet white corn each time, and each time it was delicious. What I cannot say without a doubt is that each time it was Silver Queen. I assumed it was Silver Queen, because as far as I knew there was no other sweet white corn grown in Maryland.

For several decades, Silver Queen did reign supreme, not just in Delmarva, but all over the south. Over the past 20 years, however, growers have increasingly opted for newer, more flexible hybrids. Offering a slower sugar-to-starch conversion, the newer varietals, if kept cool in the husk, can retain their sugar up to four weeks post-picking depending on the type. The conversion process for Silver Queen ears begins as soon as they are plucked from the stalk. To rightly experience Silver Queen, you must eat it on the day it was picked. As word of the changing of the guard got out, a disgruntled chorus of Silver Queen devotees arose. I dub these disgruntled devotees “the cult.”

No doubt, Silver Queen is delicious. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, her creamy-white, tender kernels yield a particularly silken, milky juice. The newer types, the cult says, are so sweet that the flavor of corn is lost. Hindsight being 20/20, I do recall some ears that I found a bit too sweet for my taste, but also many that I enjoyed with the same, or at least similar, attributes of Silver Queen. Still, every summer, the cult bemoans the Queen’s deposition and waxes mournfully for her heyday.

When my family moved to Chesterfield, Virginia from Louisville, Kentucky in the ‘70s, my dad had not yet heard of Silver Queen. In his youth, the white corn of choice was Shoepeg, similar-tasting to the Queen but with smaller, irregularly-spaced kernels. Admiring the Queen’s exquisite taste and texture, as well as her tidy rows of plump kernels, Dad planted some in our Virginia garden. His main goal, I’m sure, was our enjoyment, though I suspect he also hoped to keep Helen out of the neighbor’s crop.

As ambrosial as Silver Queen is, there’s some nostalgia at play when the cult starts their rant. Our dearest food memories are, after all, as much about how something tasted as it is about with whom and where. Maryland’s love for Silver Queen, is in part, due to timing.

The varietal Silver Queen, like all corn we consume right off the cob, is a hybrid. Introduced in 1955, she debuted three years after the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. With the influx of automobile traffic the bridge afforded, beach-bound travelers in Chevy Bel Airs, Edsels, Studebakers and such bounced along the roads that cut through Eastern Shore farmland. In response to vacationer appetites for the spoils of summer, roadside stands selling fruits, vegetables, crabs, and grilled chicken popped up along Route 50 and elsewhere throughout the rural peninsula. Thus, in a Marylander’s mind, Silver Queen keeps company with salt air and suntans, cold beer and crab feasts, and icy slices of watermelon in the shade of the porch.

To be sure, nostalgia is a potent flavor enhancer. I am not immune to it, nor would I want to be. Yet, in the case of the Cult of Silver Queen, one wonders if nostalgia isn’t an obstacle.

The good news is Silver Queen is not extinct, nor does the pleasure of local corn in summer need be a thing of the past. There are still diehard Maryland farmers who devote acreage to her, and plenty more who are cultivating other tasty varieties. The organic Calvert Farm, which has a stall at Sunday’s farmers’ market under the JFX, plants Silver Queen in addition to Silver King, Cream and Sugar, and Sugar Buns, among others. Like Calvert Farm, sweet corn farmers these days grow a variety of types, staggering the crops to take advantage of the differing growing requirements and strengths of each varietal, ensuring availability from early July through the end of summer.

If you are fortunate enough to have a sunny space and a green thumb, consider growing Silver Queen yourself. Organic seeds are available online from Johnny’s Seeds or Territorial Seed Company, both great informational resources as well as seed purveyors. You’ll find heirloom varieties like the shoepeg breed Country Gentlemen there, too.

Whether you’re a cook, gardener, or just an enthusiastic eater (corn biased or not), rejoice in the fact that we live where we do, near the mighty Chesapeake Bay, not far from the ocean, where so many conscientious farms are thriving. Delight in the fact, too, that balmy evenings thick with fireflies and cricket-song are ahead, and that everything tastes better in summer.

If you are like me, all this corn talk has butter-slicked ears dancing in your head. Let us be patient for that first crop to come in, for anticipation will only heighten the experience. And please know that the ears of corn currently for sale at the supermarket are from Florida, not Minnesota, as the first produce department employee I asked informed me.

If longing does overtake you, however, try some corn fritters for an early taste of summer (recipe follows).

Corn Fritters, Caramelized Tomatoes & Kale Salad with Candied Bacon

Of course, the best way to eat corn is right off the cob with butter and salt. Still, when I want to mix things up, I make fritters. They’re seriously good eating—easy and versatile.

Pairing the fritters with the caramelized tomatoes doubles your tomato pleasure. On one side, you have a sort of jam to enjoy with the fritter, on the other, a fresh summer tomato. The fritters are perfectly delicious on their own, or as a side dish (sans tomato or not) with grilled meats and seafood. Use other greens if you prefer them to kale. Omit the bacon and add beans for a vegetarian meal with complete protein. This recipe serves 4-6.

 

Ingredients

Fritters:

3 ears of corn

2/3 cup yellow cornmeal (preferably not finely ground)

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup whole milk

1 large egg

1/3 cup olive oil

 

Tomatoes:

6 firm-ripe plum or Campari tomatoes

2 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

 

Kale & Bacon:

5 slices of thick-cut bacon, chopped

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 teaspoon minced garlic

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

4 heaping handfuls baby kale

salt and pepper to taste

 

Method:

1. Cook ears of corn in boiling water, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.

2. Mix together sugar, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Slice tomatoes lengthwise. Press the cut side of each into the mixture.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Cook the tomatoes cut side down until they begin to bubble and caramelize, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside, caramelized side up.

4. Add the chopped bacon to the skillet, scraping up and mixing the bacon in the residual sugar. (There may be clumps at first—they will dissolve with cooking.) Cook, scraping and stirring occasionally, until bacon is crisp. (The bacon will look quite dark.) Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl. (Don’t drain on paper towels, as it will stick to them.)

5. Prep fritters while bacon is cooking—slice flush the bottom of each cob on the stalk end for easier handling. Stand the ear up vertically on a plate set over the cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut the kernels off from top to bottom. Use the back of your knife to scrape the bare cobs (again standing the ear up) to extract the pulp. Mix the cornmeal, flour, salt, cayenne, and baking soda in one bowl. Whisk together the egg and milk in another.

6. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of fat from skillet. Reheat skillet over medium high heat and add shallot and garlic, scraping and mixing for about one minute. Add vinegar to skillet; stirring and scraping for another minute, then add the brown sugar, again scraping and stirring for one more minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a dish to set aside.

7. Clean the skillet and dry it well. Whisk the egg and milk into the dry ingredients until just combined. Add the corn and mix gently.

8. Heat the oil in the clean skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. In batches, drop 1 heaping tablespoon of batter per fritter and fry, turning over once, until lightly browned, about 4 minutes total. Transfer with a spatula to paper towels to drain and sprinkle with salt while hot.

9. Re-whisk the vinegar mixture and toss the kale with it, a tablespoon at a time, until it is shiny and lightly coated but not soggy. Add bacon (you may need to break it up a bit), and toss again.

10. Serve the dressed kale and bacon along side the fritters and caramelized tomatoes.

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