On a recent afternoon at Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, a familiar sound of summer was in the air: a crisply abrasive stripping noise, the sound of husks being torn away from fat cobs of white corn. Two or three shoppers were depositing pale-green husks and shimmery strands of corn silk into a 33-gallon trashcan, placed near the corn display to catch the detritus.
Jodi Pehanick was one of them. The fortysomething shopper had meticulously packed half a dozen plump, naked ears of corn into a clear plastic bag. "It's more of a convenience thing for me," she explained. "It's less bulky."
But some maize gurus have another name for such acts of convenience. "'Raping the ear' is what we call it," says Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn. The writer has a healthy contempt for in-store husking. "The husk is the world's best sealant, like a Ziploc," she explains. "Once you lose that, you start losing all that lovely moisture." Fussell says most shoppers don't even know why they do it: "I think a lot of it is ritual."
In any case, it has lots of practitioners. Berkeley Bowl produce manager Raymundo Saldana estimates that his clerks have to empty that trashcan five to eight times a day during corn season. It doesn't seem to faze him. "They're just used to doing it," he says of the husk-strippers.
"They're looking for worms and they're looking to see that the ears are filled all the way up," Fussell says. But shoppers, she points out, can do that by probing the husks with their fingers. And because of pesticides, corn such as the non-organic ears in Berkeley Bowl's corner display are earworm-free. "If you're lucky enough to get good organic corn," she adds optimistically, "you're too happy to worry about worms."
Her optimism doesn't jibe with Judith Redmond's experience. Redmond is part owner of Full Belly Farm, a certified organic grower in Guinda that built a following partly on its Silver Queen-variety corn. Redmond expects to bring her corn to the Berkeley Tuesday farmers' market by mid-June. But if past seasons are any indication, most buyers will be stripping off the husks. "Sometimes I get mad at them, so maybe they're scared to do it in front of me," she says.
Produce-stand workers spend a lot of time educating shoppers against the need to strip, Redmond says. The rejects accumulate in the bin where their valuable juices evaporate quickly a wasteful fate for otherwise-tasty corn. Like Fussell, Redmond recommends probing. "That's what our crew does when they're picking it, looking for what we call 'blanks,'" bare patches where kernels ought to be. California-grown corn is susceptible to blanks, Redmond says, since it develops on cobs pollinated in fierce summer heat. "In our climate, local to Berkeley, they're gonna have them," she says of earworms and blanks.
In other words, buyers should stop stripping, start feeling, and just get over themselves even if they end up taking home a few critters. "It is gross," Reynolds concedes. "People don't like the idea that something ate their dinner before they got to it." But if they have worms, she adds, it means they don't have chemicals.
Back at Berkeley Bowl, cob-stripper Laurie Rosenthal goes by her own philosophy. "I grew up in corn country in Connecticut," she says. She lowers her voice to a conspiratorial almost-whisper. "I want them to be even and I don't want them to be too big, because the big ones aren't sweet," she says of the kernels. She's implicated by a rejected cob in the corn bin its plump, shiny kernels are arranged in a chaotic, uneven whorl. "Anyway, this is the Zen of corn," she says, voice rising again as she drops a plastic bag of stripped cobs into her cart. "Who knows if any of it is true?"
Chalk one up for ritual.
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