IN 1888 (I remember it faintly), an early frost came on a late August full moon, and the Maine pack of ``cream style'' sweetcorn dropped to only a half million cases. This wrought poverty on many farmers and deprived uncounted women and children of the usual corn-season payroll. Preservation of food by hermetical seal originated commercially in Maine, and next to seafood the sweetcorn pack was our big item. Almost every town in the sweetcorn acreage of Maine had its ``corn shop,'' and the big packer, Burnham & Morrill, had some two dozen of them. The reason for so many shops is the nature of the raw product -- the cobs and husks have no value, and transporting them to a central plant before the kernels are cut isn't feasible. Also, if the kernels were cut near the growing
fields and then transported to a central plant, the natural fermentation that starts immediately would attract wide attention. We're talking about corn-shop days back before highway trucks and refrigeration.
The ``Maine style sweetcorn'' was known as ``cream style'' because of its appearance -- not because there was any milk or cream added. The juices released as the kernels were cut suggested cream. There isn't a corn shop in Maine today; the ``niblets'' of prairie corn put us out of business. If you find some cream-style sweetcorn on your grocery shelf nowadays, it's an imitation, and proves that T. Gresham knew what he was talking about. Maine folks, naturally, prefer the cream style, and while our great
cornfields of the past have disappeared, we ``put up'' some from our home gardens for the gorgeous corn chowders that adorn chilly winter noonings. Nobody, I think, has ever proved that a decent chowder can be made from niblets.
I don't bother to ``can'' my sweetcorn these days, but stick enough plastic bags of milky kernels in the freezer, and I was just putting another batch away when I thought of George Morrill and his memorable effort to revolutionize the sweetcorn process. George, whose middle name was Burnham, was the last of the two families to be connected with the packing company (still in business but owned otherwise).
When highways improved and trucks got faster and bigger, he questioned the need of maintaining so many small local shops up and down the state. Why not cut the kernels upcountry, leaving the cobs and husks to be recycled, and bring the kernels quickly from hither and yon to the main plant at Portland? Great saving in machinery and crews. Corporate agreement accrued, and plans were made to pack next season's sweetcorn in the new manner.
For transporting the cut-off kernels, Burnham & Morrill bought a great quantity of 40-quart milk cans, standard in those days for bringing raw milk from dairies to creameries and receiving stations. Each can had a tight cover that pressed into place -- it would be seated with a rubber mallet, and to open the can the rubber mallet would be struck upward against the rim until the cover came loose. The new idea worked fine, and was used after that as long as B&M continued to pack cream-style sweetcorn. But
George admitted there was one thing about his scheme. . . .
He didn't take into account the aforesaid natural fermentation that begins just as soon as the kernels are cut. Up in the hinterland, the farmers brought their wagons of corn from the fields to the old corn shops, where husking and cutting followed. Then a truckload of filled milk cans, caps securely hammered down, would hightail it to Portland in the warm afternoon to deliver the kernels for hermetical canning. Steam was up, crews ready, and on the occasion of the first truckload everybody connected wi th the business was on hand to see how things went.
George said the first can came off the truck, got a clip with the rubber mallet, and because of pent-up fermentation gases there was an explosion and the cover scaled into the sky. It came down on the cement platform with a clang and was dented beyond further use. The fermentation had not advanced enough to spoil the corn, but dented can covers could dim the profits. So a man was hired to catch these covers as they came down. That's all he did, and on the payroll he was listed as ``outfielder.''