Even Ted Williams never caught pop-fly corn lids

How about a corny baseball story to go with the first feed of sweetcorn on the cob, now that August is again upon us?

After the introduction of hermetically sealed canned foods, Maine enjoyed for a couple of generations a monopoly on the production of sweetcorn, a delicious product with the label "cream style," or "Maine style," because of the distinctive sweet milky juice in which the corn was packed.

It was not a dairy additive, but was the milky exudation from kernels as they were cut from the cobs in processing. It was something grown into the corn by the soil, weather, and propitious sunshine of Maine's Sandy River Valley meadows, and corn grown elsewhere just didn't have it. The corn had to be hustled from field into cans and sealed before the juice began to ferment, something the canners took care of by locating cornshops close to the fields.

Every town in the growing belt thus had a cornshop, and in all, the state had more than 200 of them. Much thought was given to consolidation, as one large central cornshop could easily handle the state's entire crop. But corn, as it comes from the field, is on a corncob under corn husks, and processing starts with removing the husks, done by hand by youngsters in the old days, and then cutting the sweet kernels, with the juice, from the cobs by machinery, or in very old times by hand by women.

In the corn country, everybody worked in the cornshops during the brief late August corn harvest, a matter of never more than two weeks. I don't know the variety of yellow sweetcorn the cornshops preferred for cream-style corn, and perhaps I never knew, for our farm was not in the cornshop area and the corn we grew was sold on the local market. Besides, the seed was provided by the cornshops to their growers only. Cornshop sweetcorn was the kind best suited to its purpose and cornshops wouldn't take another variety.

It took many years to change the widespread operation and bring sweetcorn down to a few canning factories, and the change came with better roads, high-speed trucks, and the 40-quart milk can.

The can was developed by the dairy industry. It was of high-grade steel and had a tight steel cover that was driven into place with a rubber mallet, and the cover was easily removed by an upward blow by the same mallet. Fresh milk could be brought to Boston from St. Albans, Vt., before it began to sour, and cut-off sweetcorn kernels could be trucked to a distant canning factory before they began to ferment.

When Burnham & Morrill, packers of baked beans as well as corn, ordered hundreds of milk cans, the Portland newspaper leaped to a false conclusion and said B&M was going to start a milk route, but the real story was that village cornshops would close and corn would henceforth be canned at the main plant in the city. This proved to be a vexing fact.

The delicate sugars in the corn juice still began to ferment swiftly, and even the short time of quick rides with milk cans allowed a gas to appear inside the airtight and leak-proof covers. It was not enough to affect the quality of the product but it was sufficient to cause consternation on the concrete unloading platform when a truck arrived. As a milk can was taken off a truck, the cover was rapped open, and the kernels were rushed to the retorts, where heat ended the fermentation.

But the gas would blow the cover into space and it would remain in orbit some time. The first one was gone most of the forenoon, and it came down to hit the cement platform with a huge gong noise, bending it beyond reuse. The solution was to have a man catch covers as they came down. The paymaster whimsically entered this man on payroll as "left-fielder."

As Ted Williams would start at the crack of the bat to catch a fly ball at Fenway Park, so would this man chase can covers and take them on the run. It was certainly something to see, particularly at a cornshop. Now and then the man would misjudge and miss a cover, and the bong when it hit the concrete could be heard by the workers all through the factory. So everybody would laugh and shout together, "ERROR NINE! ERROR NINE!" and it added a pleasant and humorous touch to canning Maine style sweetcorn.

Too bad, but there isn't a cornshop in Maine today. They closed when "just as good" was good enough in the market. But now and then when somebody in quite another context goofs or there is a loud noise, you may still hear somebody shout, "ERROR NINE!"

Corn on the cob aside, a can of cream-style sweetcorn is used for a corn chowder. If you hunt you can still find some in the stores but not grown or packed in Maine. It will have to do. The label will say the product is distributed by Pillsbury of Minneapolis! Please, if you love me, never use niblet style canned corn in a corn chowder!

Here's what you do: Toss diced salt pork in a big-enough chowder pot and add cubed onions and potatoes. Mix some evaporated milk with regular milk, scald, and add to pot. Add a can of cream-style yellow sweetcorn. Mull. Then mull some more. Mulling is the essence of all chowders. Serve on cool days for best applause, and warm the leftover for lunch tomorrow. Any chowder that rests overnight gets better.

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