Short but sweet

In 1888, because of severe early frosts, the State o' Maine canned only a half million cases of sweet corn -- the figure would have approached twice that if the season had been kind. The hermetically sealed green vegetable was new, then, and was still swimming upstream against housewife resistance. The canned food originated in Maine, and the early Burnhams and the early Morrills knew they had a good thing if they could convince the ladies that a tin can was all right. The sweet corn pack of 1888 shows they were gaining.

Maine sweet corn was of the "cream style," which is a misnomer. No dairy cream or milk was used; the lacteal suggestion came from the natural juices that were released when the kernels were cut from the cobs. Those juices quickly turned milky, and as fermentation is almost instantaneous the corn shops had to be close to the fields. No sense in transporting the cobs and husks any distance. There are numerous cornshop buildings still standing around Maine, but all are either vacant or used for something else. The big one off Rt. 2 at Farmington still has the letters across the front and should be preserved as a national monument: Burnham & Morrill, Cannery No. 19.

The cornshop season was brief. Maintenance men had things ready when it was time to strip the first field, and for two-three weeks -- never beyond the first frost -- everybody in town was at the cornshop or in the fields. Boys and girls got tokens for each bushel of ears husked -- after closing time the tokens were redeemed at the office for one or two cents each. Would you believe many a Maine boy started his college fund on cornshop tokens? Girls and women made the corn ready, and the huge retorts humped as the steam did its work. Cooled, the cans were racked up in the warehouse by dates, forenoon and afternoon. No labels yet; labels went on before shipment to separate stores and wholesalers.

When the corn pack was over and the shop had been scrubbed of the sweet, sticky residues, the buyers would come, often in company. One from A&P, one from S. S. Pierce, and others from similar stores and wholesalers across the country. The cornshop proprietor or manager would have a Sterno (canned heat) burner, and he would cook up corn so the buyers could taste it and decide.

"Well, what have you got for us?"

The forenoon of September seventh was a good quality, try this."

Suum cuique,m and non disputandum;m when each buyer had selected his idea of the best Maine sweet corn of the year, the labels would go on. It was all good, down-Maine sweet corn, and what's the difference? It's all corn. The label crew started at one end and finished at the other. And then came the "dents." A can that got squoze during processing was a dent, and could be had by the locals at real bargain prices. There was nothing wrong with the corn in a dent, and one year for six cents a can I got two cases of the same corn S. S. Pierce offered at a fancy 39 cents. Mr. Pierce wouldn't sell dents, and what he didn't know never hurt me.

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