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8.1.09

Glorious Corn

Growing corn is a labor of mishaps and love – and fortunately, it’s a labor you don’t have to get into with the folks at Morning Glory Farm doing it for you.

Ever thought of trying to grow corn?

Bob Avakian tried it for the first time last summer, in a thousand-square-foot two-family garden in Sweetened Water Farm, off West Tisbury Road in Edgartown. The effort led to a kind of corny, summer-long Armageddon – relentless pestilential assaults and near-total crop failure. But Bob, the owner of Vineyard Construction Services, need not feel singled out: His neighbors over at Morning Glory Farm, the acknowledged Island masters of the corn-growing arts for more than thirty years, confront the same challenges every year too. And even they don’t always triumph.

Last year the Athearn family of Morning Glory Farm planted about twenty-three acres of corn in five fields in Edgartown and West Tisbury, hoping that each acre would yield as much as 12,000 ears (a thousand dozen, as farmers measure it) at the peak of the growing season – though the harvest is seldom that good. They plant as many as a dozen varieties, depending on weather and demand. Like Bob Avakian, Morning Glory faces an early season challenge from the deer. As farmers, the Athearns are permitted to shoot a deer in their fields whenever they find one there (though they rarely do); Bob, barred from doing the same thing in his own neighborhood, installed a six-foot fence. But then, he says, “about the time the tassels appeared on the corn so did an invasion of aphids.”

Aphids can cover the leaves so thickly that they look like a kind of fuzz. Jim Athearn, who founded Morning Glory with his wife Debbie in 1979, says that most of the time, there’s no real downside to aphids except unsightliness. “I went to SBS [in Tisbury] and bought some organic remedy for that,” says Bob, “but suffered some damage to the corn.”

Next up, Bob says: ear worms. Jim has battled this problem since his very first crop in 1970, which he sold to a market in Edgartown and had to buy right back because of an infestation of worms. Nowadays, Morning Glory asks its customers to take the long view: “Worms are a fact of life on Martha’s Vineyard,” reads a sign at the corn bin in the farm stand. “We do our best to keep them out, but occasionally they are present in the corn. If the damage is in the tip, we feel it is still good corn. It can easily be trimmed with no loss, and the corn is worth it.” Last summer Bob looked at things in the same way, saying the worms “did not bother me too much. I just cut away that part of the corn. It still tastes the same.” But he confesses: “Other people found it totally unappetizing.”

As his “slight” harvest approached, Bob felt he might be in the clear. But then “some creature began eating husks and kernels, leaving a bare cob on the stalk.” He talked with other gardeners, some of whom thought it might be crows, and others who guessed raccoons – “even with the fence.”

Another possibility: blackbirds – at times the most incorrigible threat of all, since they have “nothing to do but fly around all day and find the tastiest corn,” according to Daniel Athearn, Jim and Debbie’s youngest son, “so they pick the best.” Last August, blackbirds wiped out half the crop in one block of corn, which on this particular field in Edgartown was sixteen rows wide and nearly four hundred feet long.

The Athearns combat blackbirds with every imaginable weapon – whistlers that sound like fireworks going off, recorded gunshots – and at times they have considered what might be thought of as weird experiments. “The most recent one I remember [reading about] is spraying Concord grape extract onto the leaves of the plants,” says Simon Athearn, Dan’s older brother. “It has a diuretic in it that throws off the birds’ metabolism. Didn’t work that well in the trial.”

But like the Athearns, Bob Avakian will not quit. “This year, I am planting more corn, some to share (with the animals),” he says. “I will be ready for
the aphids and ear worms with some of the organic pesticides. Last year I put a net over my tomato plants, which stopped the crows from pecking my tomatoes. I may try that on some of the corn – not sure. Anyways, it looks like another experimental year.”

Tom Dunlop is the author of Morning Glory Farm and the Family that Feeds an Island (Vineyard Stories, 2009), with photographs by Alison Shaw and recipes from the Morning Glory farm stand, restaurants, and caterers.

Corn recipes from Morning Glory Farm and the Family that Feeds an Island

Chesca’s roasted corn chowder

Jo Maxwell and David Joyce at Chesca’s in Edgartown like to brag about their favorite meals – which are 100 percent Morning Glory. “We always say that if the farm stand sold paper towels, laundry detergent, and dog food, we would not shop anywhere else.” This chowder is delicious, very healthy, looks beautiful, and takes advantage of an array of wonderful freshly harvested vegetables.

Serves 8 to 10

• 6 ears Morning Glory corn, kernels cut off the cob
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Pinch of sea salt
• Fresh ground pepper
• 8 slices good quality smoked bacon, finely diced*
• 4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, either peeled or unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
• 2 medium onions, medium diced
• 4 stalks celery, trimmed and medium diced
• 2 medium leeks, white part only, medium diced
• 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, and medium diced
• 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup dry sherry
• 6 cups good quality chicken or vegetable stock
• 1 cup heavy cream*
• 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Toss corn in olive oil, with a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Place single layer on a sheet pan and roast for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Move the corn around halfway through cooking to avoid burning on the edges. Set aside.

3. In a heavy-bottomed 5- to 7-quart pot or Dutch oven, sauté the bacon on medium heat about 7 minutes until crisp and golden, stirring often. Drain fat, but leave a small amount in the pot for flavoring.

4. Add all the vegetables and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until tender. Add the butter, and when melted, stir in the flour and cook for 3 minutes while continuing to stir. Add the sherry and stir. Add the stock and bring to a slow boil. Boil for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Add the roasted corn, heavy cream, and final herbs. Reheat until hot but not boiling. Salt and pepper to taste.

*You can omit the bacon or use a vegan replacement, and use nonfat half-and-half instead of heavy cream to reduce calories.

Jan Buhrman’s corn pudding soufflé

Jan Buhrman, owner of Kitchen Porch caterers, is well-known on the Vineyard for her support of artisanal producers, sustainable agriculture, and fisheries.
She also helped bring the international Slow Food movement to the Island, and her food always reflects the Island’s best. This side dish makes a lovely
presentation.

Serves 6 to 8

• 4 cups Morning Glory corn (about 3 ears)
• 1 cup milk
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing dish
• 3 tablespoons finely diced shallots or scallions
• 3 tablespoons flour
• 1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese, cheddar, or feta
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
• Freshly milled white pepper
• 3 eggs, separated
• Any good salsa

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 6-cup soufflé dish.

2. Purée 1 1/2 cups corn with milk for 3 full minutes, then pour into a fine sieve and press out the liquid with a soft rubber scraper. Set aside.

3. Melt butter in a saucepan, add shallots, and cook over heat for 1 minute. Stir in the flour, then whisk in the corn-milk mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the remaining corn, cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a little pepper.

4. Warm the egg yolks by pouring 1/2 cup of the mixture over them, then return to the pan, stirring briskly.

5. Beat the egg whites until they hold firm peaks, then fold into the hot base. Pour the batter into the dish and set in a baking pan with boiling water to come halfway up the side.

6. Bake until a golden puffy crown has emerged, and the pudding is sturdy, about 1 hour. Serve warm.

Corn muffins
    
There are corn muffins, and then there are these: Morning Glory corn has a curious sweetness that brings out the best in almost any dish calling for fresh corn.

Makes 12 large muffins

• 2 cups whole milk
• 1 cup sugar
• 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
• 2 eggs
• 2 cups fresh corn
• 2 cups cornmeal
• 2 cups flour
• 1 /8 cup baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• Turbinado sugar, for muffin tops

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper muffin-liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine milk, sugar, butter, eggs, and corn. Whisk until combined.

3. In a separate bowl, sift together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt. Add dry ingredients to wet mixture. Mix until just incorporated, being careful not to overmix.

 4. Scoop mixture into muffin cups until 3/4 full. Sprinkle with sugar and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until muffins are golden brown and spring back when lightly touched.