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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

When I was a girl, my brother and I spent the last few weeks of our summer vacation with my grandmother who lived in a small town south of Montreal. By mid-August, I’m sure most other kids were thinking about going back to school. But at Grandma’s house, all I could think about was corn – sweet, crunchy corn.

The town was surrounded by cornfields, and by that time of the year, the stalks were “as high as an elephant’s eye,” to borrow the famous lyric from Oscar Hammerstein.

My family ate corn at other times of the year but it came from the freezer or a can. In August, we got to eat corn in its perfect form – freshly picked, boiled and eaten right off the cob.

During the short corn season, my grandma would often drive us around to the farm stands at the edge of the fields where she would carefully inspect a few ears. Any more than a few hours off the stalk, and she would declare the corn too “old” to eat. But if she approved of what was available, we would pack three, four or five-dozen cobs (or more) into big paper bags. The amount depended on how many relatives would be joining us for the feast to come.

Corn on the cob brought our family together in a way no other food could. It was also a lot of fun to eat.

Back at the house, my great-grandmother, who was in her early 90s at the time, would be waiting in the kitchen to bring several huge pots of water to a boil. My brother and I had the job of shucking the corn. Cousins, aunts and uncles who lived nearby would start to arrive as we sat on the steps of the back porch violently separating husks from cobs then carefully removing the silk. If I discovered a live worm wiggling between the kernels, I’d squeal in horror. This usually brought an adult to the screen door, a bottle of beer or Coke in hand, to check on our progress. If we were working too slowly, they’d come out to help.

Once the shucking was done and the corn was boiled, we were ready to eat. Grandma brought big plates piled high with steaming cobs to the kitchen table, set simply with two large blocks of butter and shakers of salt. We all sat tightly together, elbow to elbow. Sometimes, if there were too many of us, I’d have to sit on an adult’s lap. Back then, we could never have imagined the need for physical distancing.

The wait for the cobs to cool enough to grasp with my hands was almost unbearable, but my family were purists. We would never think of using those silly little yellow cob-shaped plastic forks. There is nothing more satisfying than gripping the real thing between your fingers.

When the corn had cooled, everyone fought for their turn at the salt and butter. Then there was a kind of hush as everyone took their first bite. There was an urgency to our enjoyment. Each of us was aware, I think, that eating sweet corn this fresh was a glorious but fleeting pleasure.

Eating corn on the cob is messy business. That was another thing that made it special. I could eat with my hands, my fingers crusted in salt and my face flecked with kernels, and nobody scolded me about table manners.

After the first round of cobs had been devoured, everyone began to relax. We’d race each other to see who could finish a cob first. We’d debate about the correct way to eat corn on the cob. Do you spin the cob like a wheel, gnawing around the circumference? Or do you run your teeth back and forth, like an old typewriter, nibbling the kernels horizontally? Even my usually stern great-grandmother, with butter glistening on her chin, grinned like a kid.

The conversation during these meals was always lively. The adults would compare the quality of the current year’s crop with previous harvests. This inevitably led to family stories from the past like how, as children, Grandma and Aunt Ilene accidentally ran over Uncle Bernie with the horse and buggy on their way to school one day. Another favourite was one about an unfortunate cat that got killed when a bolt of lightning shot straight through the old farmhouse from the front to the back screen door during a summer storm.

Although I believed them completely at the time, I know now that these stories had only a kernel of truth to them – pardon the pun. Listening to my family try to outdo each other with exaggerated tales taught me that the veracity of some stories is not as important as the enthusiasm put into telling them to entertain the people you love.

I have no idea how many cobs we actually ate in one sitting, but there were rarely more than a few left over. Eventually, we’d haul ourselves up from the table and head to the front porch of the house. In a state of happy lethargy, we quietly enjoyed the warm, gentle dusk that settles over Quebec’s Eastern Townships in late summer.

I moved away from that part of the country a long time ago. Many of the corn-eaters I sat with around my grandma’s kitchen table are gone now. But, every year around this time, when the corn is high in the fields, I remember what they taught me. Savour the end of summer. Enthusiastically devour the bounty it brings. And never, ever eat corn on the cob alone.

Michelle Cook lives in Calgary.

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