Surrounded by the pollution resulting from decades of steel production, a community garden is providing relief to Chicagoland communities.
August 7, 2008
I had an interesting “discussion” with an editor who had requested an essay with a recipe from me for one of their holiday issues. The magazine wanted me to focus on one of my family’s favorite holiday dishes—something that had a real significance for me. I sent my top dish list over—candied yams, macaroni and cheese, homemade potato salad and fried corn. I would have added corn bread dressing, but I just can’t make it like my grandmother did.
A few days later I got a call back. Somebody was doing a story on a potato dish, which killed potato salad and sweet potatoes. So that left fried corn. The problem was nobody there had ever heard of fried corn. They wanted to know if the kernels were battered and fried like popcorn shrimp. I explained that it was a Southern dish, sometimes called corn maque choux in Louisiana. “Okay,” she said, and I went off to write my story.
Two hours later, the young editor called back. “We had a meeting, and we don’t think it’s authentic,” she said tentatively. It was almost a question. And I was almost left speechless. I waited for her to elaborate. Finally she said, “We think people only eat corn in the summer on the cob, when it is in season. How can you have it at Thanksgiving?”
I was irritated. Tell me you’ve never had it. Tell me that you only eat corn on the cob in August. Tell me you really want to know more. But don’t tell me that it isn’t authentic. This is the point where I would have cut bait, and gone on to another article for another magazine, but this article was giving me the opportunity to write about my family, and honor black Americans and the way they eat—something that rarely happens in national magazines. I took a deep breath and explained that fried corn was a dish that, like many others, came from the South, where the “season” is longer. When black people migrated to the North for better opportunities, they took their recipes with them, even though “in season” meant that you had to improvise, if you wanted to eat what you loved all year long.
I can remember my grandparents buying huge quantities of corn in season at the farmer’s market, where we would spend the afternoon shucking it. Then my grandmother would get a big roasting pan and carefully cut the corn off the cob, twice. The first pass hit the middle of the kernels. The second pass also released the “milk.” That night we would have a big cast iron skillet full of the corn with some sweet onions and peppers. The summertime meant that you could have some big fresh juicy garden tomatoes on top, sliced as thin or thick as you wanted. The rest was put away in the freezer, for special cool weather Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas. When you live in the Midwest, you have to improvise.
So, I explained this to the editor. She paused and said, “I just don’t know.” At that moment, I threw down the gauntlet. “You asked me for a dish that was treasured in my African American family, no?” She said yes. “Okay, this is it. An authentic recipe from an authentic black woman.” I was like a puppy with a chew toy. “Did you ask the Mexican writer about the authenticity of her mole? Or the Chinese writer about her dish?” She said in a remorseful whisper, “I haven’t called them yet. But I have to call them, too.”
When we talk about the culture and history of food, including the way that we celebrate it, we must honor what each group brings to the table. We are as American as apple pie, pot stickers, enchiladas, candied yams and fried corn. America isn’t called a melting pot for nothing.
Recipe: Comer Family Fried Corn
Makes 10 Servings
Two dozen ears of fresh corn cut off the cob
Four strips of bacon cut up
One cup of chopped sweet onions
One half cup of green bell peppers, diced
One medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced**
One half cup of heavy cream
One half teaspoon salt
One quarter teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
One teaspoon of sugar
Cut the corn of the cob in two steps, retain the “milk” that is released with the second cut. Place in a bowl with the cream. Fry the cut up bacon strips in a Dutch oven or heavy skillet, until crisp. Add the chopped onions, bell peppers, jalapenos and sauté until translucent. Slowly add in the corn and cream mixture. Add salt, pepper and sugar. Stir to make sure the corn and vegetables are mixed. Let simmer for about 25-30 minutes with the pan covered, periodically removing the lid to stir.
**The jalapenos were not in my family’s original recipe, but I added it once I had in New Orleans. It adds that extra little kick that keeps people guessing.
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