When fresh sweet corn hits the fruit stands, tassels wet from morning dew, I think of my mother. She loved few things, among them sweet corn and baseball. She may have loved her kids, but to paraphrase B.B. King, maybe she was jiving, too.
First, I sat in the passenger seat when my father drove us to the farmer, a couple of miles down new suburban roads. Then I drove myself to the farmer, waited for the front loader to bring in a few hundred kilos of corn from the field. Twenty-five cents a dozen. To be eaten that night. The next day the same and the day after that. And once the Expos came to town, there was a baseball game on TV after dinner, during which you could pull plugs of corn from between your teeth as you cheered for Coco Laboy and John Boccabella. Where have you gone, Coco Laboy?
To my long-departed mother, corn was edible only if torn from the ground that day, preferably a few hours before being dropped into the pot of boiling water. And, certain as Yom Kippur, there was the annual day she would take a bite and make her pronouncement: “Season’s over,” and we’d nod religiously. The subtle shift in taste, tinge of bitter where sugar had reigned just a few days before, remains embedded in my taste and olfactory storage bins today. Like mother, like son. Except I steam corn in two inches of water for a few minutes as opposed to boiling it for half an hour, though I inherited hives upon seeing naked corn on Styrofoam trays, wrapped in plastic.
Though she made a hell of a chicken soup and world-beating gefilte fish, corn, chicken, liver and fish filets had to be baked or fried long enough for Steve Rogers to pitch half a game. Her memories insisting refrigeration was only slightly more reliable than the ice box of her youth and everything needed to be killed, including flavour.
She also imbued me with an appreciation of bread. Real bread. From a bakery. Unfortunately, she preferred her rye, kimmel, black, pumpernickel or corn bread to be sliced and slid into a plastic bag, destroying the crust and the texture, but, fresh bread was as important as fresh corn. Two-day old bread was garbage. “Pick up a fresh bread,” was more familiar than, “See you later.”
I have inherited the pleasure for one of life’s true wonders, the combination of grain, water and air that, when conjoined with soft butter, makes almost anything tolerable. I even found a baker that shares my disdain for slicing machines and plastic bags and has neither in his shop. The crust snaps and crunches and a slice in the morning carries you to lunch.
And, lastly, there was her legacy of judging one’s pantry by the quantity of tomatoes in the house. Back in the day, tomatoes came four in a plastic tray, wrapped in cellophane and had little to no flavour, except when summer came and again I was dispatched to the farmer for field tomatoes. Those and corn and fresh bread a fine dinner made.
I can still hear her on the phone. “We don’t even have a bloody tomato in the house.” The tomato usually went with a salad of iceberg lettuce and vapid cucumbers and a bottle of Kraft salad dressing but importing greens from faraway places were not yet the norm.
My mother was born in June and died in August so summer brings back memories of her meagre appetites and my own discovery of the pleasures of the palate. It was a time of year when at least a few things came not from a can nor were consigned to be cooked beyond flavour or recognition.
Maybe my insistence on crusty, fresh bread, same-day corn, plump, ripe tomatoes is a tribute paid to a woman whose life was often torturous and left few legacies of pleasure. Hers was a hard road, made barely passable by a few earthly delights, a thin slab of life she could control.
She and the Expos are gone and with them went my addiction to baseball. But, for the rest, I stand firm. Life is short and often difficult but fresh corn, crusty bread and ripe tomatoes make the trip reassuring.
There are worse legacies.