Growing up in Baltimore there are just some things you understand to be ineluctable truths: Everything tastes better with Old Bay on it or in it, including ice cream. The Orioles will get your hopes up and then break your heart. And sweet corn is only worth eating on the same day it was picked.
The Baltimore cult of corn is something I've been pondering recently, since for the past couple years I've been spending a fair amount of time down in D.C., where my sweetie lives (the things we do for love). Among the many striking and substantial differences between our towns is the fact that D.C. people simply don't care about corn. When I'd ask new acquaintances where the best places to buy corn might be, they'd look puzzled and then say, "the supermarket?" Whereas when the same question is put to a Baltimorean, we have an immediate, detailed, and highly opinionated response. We know from good corn.
And we take it deadly serious, hon. When I was a kid, our neighbors threw a crab feast every year and they always had corn from two different sellers. All Silver Queen, cooked the same way, but served on two separate, clearly marked trays. Miss Theresa preferred corn from a certain produce stand (now gone) on Ritchie Highway; Mr. Al bought his corn on the Eastern Shore, where he also bought the crabs. Each was convinced in the superior freshness and sweetness of the corn from their favored sources. Although both tasted equally good to me, this kind of corn extremism didn't strike me as particularly odd-even at 8 years old, I knew the importance of good corn. Now I've grown into my heritage, a deep geek, able to compare and contrast white versus bicolored corn, the finer points of Cloud Nine and Ice Queen varieties, and-most importantly-the best places to buy truly fresh corn.
And it's never hard to find fellow corn geeks willing to join the conversation. So whether it's from George's Farm Market (on Harford Road, just north of city/county line) or Family Affair on Frederick Road in Catonsville, or from some dude hawking fresh ears from the back of a pickup truck along Edmonson or Eastern avenues, most Baltimoreans have definite corn opinions and a preferred corn pusher. We're always happy to share. No matter where you shop, though, if you keep these criteria in mind, you'll know whether to walk or whip out the reuseable shopping bag and start stuffing it with ears.
A conscientious corn vendor only puts out a small amount of product at a time, holding back the rest in some kind of cooling setup. Even the guy selling from the back of his pickup truck will keep it covered in wet burlap (aka "swamp cooler") and a tarp. If you're looking at massive mounds of corn baking in direct sunlight, approach with skepticism.
Bonus points to the purveyor if he or she can tell you the name of the variety, but this doesn't mean what it used to. Sweet corn hybrids have been coming and going so rapidly in recent years that it's hard to keep track. If someone claims theirs is Silver Queen, though, they're either lying or misinformed or maybe they grew it in their rowhouse's backyard: While Baltimoreans long lived happily under her reign, commercially grown Silver Queen was dethroned by newcomer varieties back in the 1990s.
The husks (outer leaves) should be bright green and tight and should feel a bit damp to the touch. If they are faded-looking or feel dry, the corn is old. The cut stem end should also be moist and light in color-if it's turning brown, it's another sign this corn is too long from the field.
Peel back a bit of the husk at the top of the ear. The silk should be soft and light golden-colored, though it's OK if the very ends are darker. If it's very dark or feels dry and brittle, step away. The kernels themselves should be plump and tightly spaced. It's fine if the ones at the very end are tiny and undeveloped-even a good sign; if the kernels are plump and full to the very end, this means the corn was pretty mature when harvested and may be getting tough.
Some people (hi, mom!) like to pierce a kernel with a fingernail to make sure it oozes creamy white "milk"-only fresh corn will do this-but I feel like this damages the goods. If all other signs point to freshness, that's good enough.
When picking your prey, heft the corn in your hand. It's like picking out a good steamed crab: A good ear of corn will feel heavy for its size. Don't be shy about picking through to get the best ones. If the corn seller won't let you choose your own ears, walk away (but I've almost never encountered this in Baltimore).
Get the corn into a cooler as soon as possible-if you've gone to all this trouble to get good corn, do not spoil the experience by leaving it to roast in your hot car while you run some more errands. Cook it that same day by bringing a large pot of water to a full, rolling boil. The boil should not subside when you drop in the corn. Boil for one minute. Seriously, good fresh sweet corn needs no more cooking than that, though some people go as long as three minutes. Remove at once-the worst thing you can do to corn is let it linger in the cooking water. (Ignore any bullshit advice about adding either salt or sugar to the water.)
Finally, a cautionary tale: Down in D.C. a couple weeks back and craving a sweet corn fix, I rolled the dice and stopped at a cutesy produce stand where a sign posted above a pile of fresh-looking ears stopped me in my tracks. "It used to be that you had to eat your sweet corn as soon as it was picked," it said. "No more! Plant breeders have succeeded in slowing the natural conversion of sugars into starch in the corn. Current corn varieties taste as sweet today as the day it was picked so long as it has been refrigerated and isn't more than 10 days old."
Huh. Food for thought. I bought a few ears-because I was feeling skeptical due to the sign (10 days?), I did the fingernail test-but only a few, at a pricey $1 an ear. It was OK corn, not great. ("Buck an ear, it oughta clean and cook itself," my brother commented when I told him about it.) A few days later I bought two dozen ears of impeccably fresh corn from a Baltimore County farm where they harvest a little at a time throughout the day (K.P. Huber's, at the corner of Mount Vista and Belair roads in Kingsville).
And then I experimented on my unwitting children for the next week. I kept the corn refrigerated, wrapped loosely in paper grocery bags, and each day we had some for dinner. The first night it was fantastic-crisp bite into juicy, sweet kernels, all that a great corn experience provides. The second night it was still pretty good. By the third night, though, it had become noticeably flabby and less sweet. Probably about the condition of average grocery-store corn, come to think.
Monsanto can claim what it likes, but Baltimore still wants its corn picked today.