You don't cook corn, she insisted, you merely warm it. Don't shuck it until you're ready to sit down to eat, then set the cobs in roiling water for no more than 60 seconds. Your reward, if the corn is truly fresh, will be hot, crisp kernels as sweet as ripe fruit, requiring nothing - not salt or butter - to enhance their flavor.
Of course the corn at her local produce stand was always fresh, picked not once but twice a day from nearby fields. Whatever else we bought of fruits and vegetables in the years of my childhood, we rarely left without a dozen ears of yellow and white corn, the kernels so crisp they fairly exploded with sunlight.
Too many cooks treated corn as an afterthought, she complained, setting it to boil and then forgetting about it until everything else was ready to serve. By then its sugars had been converted to starch, its crispness to mush. She didn't rise at four to walk the long cornrows, filling heavy burlap bags with ripe ears, for that!
Because of the care she took with everything she grew and sold, a line was often outside her stand: housewives, housekeepers, and an occasional retired husband patiently waiting to be served by her or a teenage assistant, chatting amiably among themselves, enjoying the atmosphere of rural self-sufficiency fast disappearing from every corner of suburban life.
When their turn came they often peppered her with questions: how best to prepare acorn squash, which potatoes were ideal for roasting or mashing, which apples for baking.
To me, an 8-year-old boy standing dutifully beside his mother, the woman seemed a formidable, almost primordial presence. She was aproned, booted, and scarved; her powerful brown hands were leathered from long hours spent harvesting corn, cutting bouquets of flowers, carrying bushel baskets of peppers, apples, onions, and lettuce. Her Scandinavian accent and native reserve set her conspicuously apart from her freshly pressed and perfumed patrons. Clutching a thick pencil between dirt-stained fingers, she weighed each item, jotting the price on the brown paper bags and tallying the column first in one direction, then the other.
If she ever rested, it wasn't while customers waited. During the busiest times she called upon daughter, son, and husband to help. After all, what did she have to offer that couldn't be purchased more cheaply and quickly at local supermarkets? Her produce might be fresher and more carefully selected, but what she was really selling was personal contact with a bygone mode of marketing.
In an advancing age of do-it-yourself shopping amid mile-long refrigerated aisles, she provided personalized service and a knowing eye. Were the melons ripe? A quick squeeze of her practiced hands determined exactly when the fruit would be ready to serve. Were the beans sweet, the tomatoes meaty, the onions sharp? And when time allowed, a story, a memory, a bit of culinary or gardening advice accompanied each purchase.
Life had offered her a pulpit and a presiding role in an age of vanishing kitchen arts. As a new generation turned increasingly to fast and frozen foods, she served as a touchstone to a time of personal culinary responsibility. Young couples living far from their more practiced parents asked her advice on the rare occasion when they repaired to the kitchen to roast a Thanksgiving turkey or bake a holiday pie. Her reassuring maternal presence inspired a kind of confidence cookbooks did not. Catch her at the right moment, and she was only too happy to scribble instructions on the same brown paper bag, throwing in complimentary sprigs of basil or thyme.
Children rarely left without an apple or a plum. And should any let slip that a birthday or anniversary was being celebrated, they returned home carrying a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Years later, as a new father, I was hopelessly inept in the kitchen. I had contented myself with take-out and deli since college. But the presence of an infant in the house seemed to demand a new approach. So even before my daughter was weaned I began taking her on daily walks to the farm, often finding the stand empty in late morning, the long green counter crowded with baskets of lettuce and beans, cucumbers and cauliflower, peppers and carrots. Our neighbor had a sixth sense for approaching patrons, for I never waited more than a moment before a screen door slammed and she hurried from the house, wiping her wet hands on her apron, then waving away my apologies for interrupting her. She often began our transaction with a gift for my daughter - a few flowers, a small pumpkin, tiny Indian corn, a piece of ripe fruit.
Early one August morning that first summer of fatherhood, after spending a sleepless night pacing with a colicky newborn, I took my daughter for a walk at sunrise. Habit carried me to the farm's roadside acre planted with fireweed, blue salvia, snapdragons, and asters that were sold in banded bunches from water-filled buckets beside the produce. I walked among the waist-high flowers. At the far end of the field stood our neighbor gathering the day's freshest blossoms, pruning shears in one hand, a growing heap of color in the other.
When she spotted me, she was startled. "You should not be here. This is private property!" Then, recognizing us, she said, "Oh, it's you," and strode forward, a smile spreading across her sun-browned face. Her own daughter had just left home for college, prompting her wistful pleasure in mine. And as we stood under a brightening summer sky, she removed a rubber band from her apron pocket, bundled a thick bouquet of asters, and tucked them under my arm. "For your wife," she said.
I felt in that moment the communion that bound her many customers to her. More than her fruits and vegetables, more than the advice she tendered and the nostalgic connection to an earlier era she represented, she had devotedher life to sustaining those around her. With her gift of flowers she reached across me to the women in my life, providing nourishment, beauty, and a little bit of her generous heart.