To put zip and cheer into a snappy winter day, as good as anything is a jolly corn chowder, and I've been alarmed at the many folks I've stumbled on lately who have never feasted on this delicacy. ''A corn chowder?'' they say, and ''What will they think of next!'' When informing myself further on some nourishment I know well, I always turn first to Mr. Larousse, who condescends in this instance to tell us corn is more frequently eaten in America than in France.
Mr. Larousse also tells us to look up maize under corn. Corn, says Mr. Larousse, is of South American origin, and was introduced into France by Spanish explorers. And today, French farmers do grow considerable ''Indian'' corn, but not much of the best corn of all, corn-on-the-cob, which is sweet corn. Mr. Larousse seems not to know about corn chowder. I shall therefore refer you to the cookbook of ''Better Homes and Gardens,'' which specifies Golden Bantam sweet corn for chowders, attesting that their cookery editor can be trusted in all directions.
Golden Bantam was for years the exclusive property of the Burpee seed people, and probably they still offer it. It came on a small ear of eight and only eight rows, and no honest home gardener ever planted anything else for his own table. Then hybrid seeds came along, and no comment. Better Homes says to cut the kernels from Golden Bantam for a corn chowder, from ears that have already been boiled or steamed.
A word from Maine about that: A proper Maine clambake uses the word ''clam'' curiously. There are clams, certainly, but the soft-shell or long-neck kind. They get laid on the hot picnic rocks along with the lobster, which is the prominent reason for the feast. Then, the bake-master lets himself go, and he doesn't need to do the same thing every time. He'll toss on some potatoes to roast, carefully arrange eggs to do as much, add some frankfurters or chicken wings or whatever he has, and always put in some corn-on-the-cob with the husks on. The ears, prior to gaining the hot rocks, should have been in a bucket of sea water since being plucked.
The lobsters and clams will also release salt water as they cook, and this is kind of them. You get the general idea. The pile of food on the hot rocks is further improved by a covering of seaweed, or rockweed, and a tarpaulin to hold down steam. The food, properly placed, takes about an hour to heat. You will notice this method makes the sweet corn most tasty, and that the flavor is unlike any other sweet corn you have ever tasted.
A century ago, nearly all the sweet corn put in tin cans for the American market was grown and processed in Maine. Almost every town had one or more seasonal corn-shops, and local farmers all grew acres of sweet corn. The product was called ''cream-style,'' but the only liquid came from the corn itself. No cream or milk was added in packing. Today, Maine does not have a corn-shop. Midwestern states took our business from us and did it while putting ''Maine-Style Cream-Corn'' on their labels. Maine-style is simply a sweet corn that yields a creamy juice when the kernels are cut from the cob. It is the kind that makes a true corn chowder.
The sweet-corn harvest came just before schools opened in September, and school youngsters were hired to husk the ears as the farmers brought them in wagons. For each bushel husked, ready to have the kernels cut, a child would be given a corn token. At quitting time, a boy or girl could turn in the tokens at the shop office and get money. The token was usually worth three cents.
Not long ago, Walter Kramer was telling me about the ''buyers.'' Walter owned a corn shop in his time. He said when the first field of corn was ready, they'd start up the shop and begin canning. Each day's pack was put in the warehouse until at the end of the season the warehouse was full. No can had a label, because that waited until the buyers came along in December.
Walter would say, ''Now, Aug. 28 was a fine pack,'' and he'd heat a can of that day and each buyer would taste it. And so on, and A&P would buy so many thousand cases of this day, to retail at two for 25 cents, and S. S. Pierce would buy another day to retail for 32 cents a can. Once the labels were printed and ready to be pasted on, buyer by buyer in turn, the shipping crew began at one end of the warehouse and went through the other. No attention was paid to which was which day. Walter would say, ''It's all corn!'' And it was all good.
Now, as for how to make your own chowder: Cube a goodly hunk of salt pork and render it with moderate heat until the pieces are almost but not crispy. Remove and save to be re-added. Put enough diced and sliced potatoes and onions in pork fat, cover with water, and cook until done. A spoonful of chicken consomme powder added to the liquid is a pleasant idea, but isn't necessary. If you have no Golden Bantam sweet corn to cut off the cobs, use a can of Maine-style sweet corn, dump her in, and stir.
Except for the milk, that's about it. Everybody should have a long-handled wooden spoon for chowder stirring. Serve on any bleak winter day with Westminster oyster crackers or Bent's commons, and figure on an average of two refills per customer. You'll find a hot summer day is not a corn-chowder day. It makes the guests sweat. Pick some day with a chill factor in the low numbers, and you'll never want for friends.