And here's to busy August,
Devoid of holiday!
We cannot shirk,
it's work, work, work,
And no time out for play!
I sit here in the languid lassitude of lingering leisure and think on the golden days that passed too soon and when we had a Maine holiday in August. It was Corn-on-the-Cob Day.
It was strictly Maine, because nowhere else could good sweet corn be grown. This is probably still true, but as my wise grandfather said long go, "When all the world is hybrid, how shall we know the truth?"
The only place for correct sweet corn then was the valley of the Sandy River, where the meadows were made for sweet corn and every town, hamlet, location, village, place, township, and four-corners had one or more corn shops to process the local harvest into tin cans and sell it to a yearning world market. Every town in the Sandy River Valley had its corn shop, or two, and we had more than 200 in all of Maine.
Today, there isn't a corn shop in the state.
The canned corn was known as Maine-style or cream-style because of the creamy sweet juice, but there was no dairy additive. The seeming milky part was the natural corn juice released when the kernels were cut from the cob. The juice would begin to ferment instantly, which is the reason every locality had its own corn shop. There wasn't time to haul fresh-cut corn a distance, and it cost too much to haul cobs and husks that were to be heaved aside.
The hustle and bustle of canning Maine-style sweet corn came in the last two weeks in August, as my chum and trail buddy, Eddy, and I were taking off on our annual hike to nowhere, rounding out our summer vacation.
We did this together every August through grammar and high school, and as we always passed our first night out somewhere in the Sandy River Valley, we always claimed we invented Corn-on-the-Cob Day, August's only festival. We carried a knapsack apiece, and betwixt us had all we needed, including a pup tent that easily slept two boys who were exhausted from walking all day. The farthest we ever went was to Quebec City, and some years we'd find a good place to camp and stay there until it was time to go home.
The great gastronomic catastrophe of the 20th century was the acceptance of niblet corn by the American housewife and the consequent atrocious absurdity that an inferior quality can be "just as good."
The Sandy River corn shops went out of business with the discovery of niblets, but Eddy and I would find the Sandy River folks busy as bees in white-clover time, picking, husking, canning, and going back for more corn. Thus we invented Corn-on-the-Cob Day and held our annual celebration on the spot at the peak of the vintage, so to speak. It was not necessary to "snitch" a dozen ears for our camping-out supper. Just ask at any farmhouse, and we were told to "help yourself." Several times the farmer would pick some for us and then come and eat it with us.
One time a farmer brought us a bushel and a Gravenstein apple pie. Eddy and I readily saw that an August holiday was a splendid innovation.
There was no objection to child labor then, and youngsters were paid to husk the ears. For each bushel of corn, a child was given a token by the husking master, and at the office he, or she, could get two cents for a token.
One year Eddy and I husked a bushel apiece, just to say we'd done it. We got a token apiece. They were stamped "B&M," for Burnham & Morrill, and we turned ours in for our two-cents' worth. Do you have the faintest notion, dear reader, what a two-cent B&M corn token fetches today at a flea-market booth?
EDDY and I had a gallon tin pail for dipping pond water, but nothing big enough to boil our feed of corn. So we thrust our ears, husks still on, into our little pail and soaked them well. Then we laid the wet ears on the embers of our little campfire and allowed them to steam like a Baldwin locomotive.
We had foreseen this moment, and had acquired a pound of butter, which we kept wrapped with ice in a newspaper. Ice, dear friends, we got off an ice cart in any previous village, where else? Such a small piece that we wanted was too little to bother with, so the iceman would say, "Oh, that's all right, where are you boys from?"
If we had butter left over after we'd husked and anointed our supper ears, we'd wrap it in the wet newspaper and have more sweet corn for breakfast. For the annual sweet-corn supper on our holiday, sweet corn sufficed, and Eddy and I never went for beefsteaks, squab under glass, patty-de foo-graw and suchlike high-society stuff. And we didn't know then about recycling and biodegradability, so we just tossed the husks and defoliated cobs every which way and didn't litter.
We were particular about one other thing. When we'd spent a night in somebody's pasture, we always went to the house to tell them we'd left things in good shape and thank them for their hospitality. This simple gesture often got us sandwiches and a slab of frosted cake for our lunches on the road.
It's a great pity our sweet-corn holiday in August has been allowed to lapse, what with this and that.
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