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AW, SHUCKS, THIS VIRTUOSO DOESN'T MISS A BEAT WHEN IT COMES TO HUSKING CORN

"Now, how do you want these?" I asked my wife, Kathleen, as I pulled the big tub of cut-up chickens toward the tailgate of the truck.

"Two legs, two thighs, one piece of breast in each bag," was her answer. I remembered the formula from so many other years and was just checking to see if her plans might have changed. But she was sticking with the system that gave us a variety of meals and allowed her to put aside extra bags of white meat for special occasions.

It was a pleasant fall afternoon, a good day to be doing our annual chicken chores. I sorted parts, and she closed the bags with her vacuum sealer. We were pleased with the chickens, which were larger and better-formed than those we had raised in past years. The dressed roosters tipped the scales at 7 pounds and the hens a pound less.

This was a pound and a half better than last year's chickens, and the birds were leaner. As we bagged meat and hauled it down to the freezer, we speculated about why the birds were so much better -- the weather? Different rations?

We decided the difference was probably genetics, because this year's chicks had come from a different supplier. Apparently all Cornish cross chicks are not created equal.

We finished with the cut-up meat and then packaged 35 whole birds for roasting. All I could think about as I went up and down the stairs were winter Sunday afternoons, the table crowded with mashed potatoes, vegetables, roast chicken and gravy, the windows steamed and the whole house full of the aromas of the feast. Let misers play with gold and think themselves rich, my arms were full of true wealth.

Because the cook is so busy putting food up on Chicken Saturday, we usually treat ourselves to a meal away from home. We drove to Medina to have a pizza and sit a spell before beginning the second part of our food-preservation doubleheader, sweet corn.

When we got home, Kathleen put kettles of water to boil on the stove. I sharpened some knives in the shop, then started shucking the knee-high pile of corn by the back door.

Every guy is secretly vain about something he can do. It might be bowling, welding or eating hot peppers, but every man has something at which he favors himself a virtuoso. My secret vanity is my speed at husking corn. I count "thousand-one, thousand-two" to time myself as my hands grab an ear and tear into the shucks. I rip one side open, pop out the ear and snap it free from its wrappings. I'm going at a two-dozen-per-minute clip.

I haul in some baskets of ears, and Kathleen begins the blanching and cooling process. Coming back outside, I see that our dog, Gretchen, has purloined a couple of ears and is happily gnawing them under the clothesline. There's nothing that this dog likes better than an ear of corn.

Getting back to the husking, I work up a story in which I make my living as a corn-shuck con man wandering around Nebraska, hustling the unsuspecting locals. It's not long before I become known as "York State Johnny" and am challenged by " 'Braska Slim," a skinny guy with enormous hands. Before the story can get to its climax, I've run out of ears and adjourn to the kitchen, where I am given a knife and employment as a corn cutter.

Our teenager is recruited as a bagger, and we work hard at the mass of sweet corn as the evening creeps past midnight. Finally we're done.

I carry pails of cobs outside and dump them into the bucket of the front-end loader I've parked in the yard. In the morning, I'll take them out to the cows.

In the darkness, I notice the candle Kathleen lighted before we went to supper. It sat in a jar on the birdbath near her flowers, a flickering memorial to the troubles that have beset our country. At dusk it was barely noticeable, but now it beams across the yard. When it's dark enough, even a small light burns bright.

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