Monday, August 31, 2009

Quality counts with sweet corn and pie crust

(Sweet corn is in season.  And there is good sweet corn and not-so-good sweet corn.)

Last night Robin and I had what may have been the best sweet corn of our lives. I bought it yesterday at the Iron Kettle Farm near Candor. Realize that we both grew up in Ohio, where it is an annual tradition to eat all the sweet corn you can possibly eat during August. But there is sweet corn and there is sweet corn.

I don't think I have ever had really good corn from a grocery store. To be at its best, sweet corn needs to be picked at the exact right time in its maturation, the so-called "milk stage", early in the morning when it is cool, and then those ears should be eaten within hours of being picked. With every passing hour after picking, the sugars in the corn are being converted to starch, so the ears become less sweet and more chewy as the clock ticks away. With really good corn, I simply grill it over charcoal while basting it with olive oil and it is fantastic--no butter, no salt, no pepper. And the corn we had last night was superb. I could have eaten a dozen ears.

But for the past couple of years, whenever I have corn on the cob at my daughter's home, her husband always asks me how it is. It is never very good for the reasons I provided above, and so I give him my agronomist's appraisal. "Just a little past", I'll say. Or, "Probably should have been picked 2-3 days ago".  And, "Should have been eaten yesterday". I try to be tactful and to hide my Buckeye State cockiness about this, but he is the one who asked. Mitch always thinks I am joking.  He responds, "There is nothing wrong with this corn. It has tasted like this all my life".  Now, Mitch is from Staten Island, so you can see how difficult it might be to explain agricultural factoids to him. The first time he visited our home when he and Amy were dating, he saw a hummingbird at our feeder on the deck and he thought it was a giant insect. See how challenging this is?  (On the other hand, Mitch knows a lot about the stock market, because he works on Wall Street.  He warned me about the low quality of Over the Counter stocks years ago, compared to more "blue chip" type equities, but I insisted on losing money.  So the keeper of the quality standard resides in different people for different things.)

With my daughter, the situation is almost as bad.  We have a recipe for pie crust in our family that came from my grandmother.  It is fantastic crust and, if made correctly, is every bit as enjoyable to eat as the fruit filling used in the pie.  But my daughter fails to appreciate this and thinks that a frozen pie crust bought at the local store is just as good.  Every Thanksgiving we go through the same routine when I ask, "Is this Grandma Mary's pie crust?", although I know for sure after tasting it that it is not.  She always says no, and who cares, and who can tell the difference, and that old crust contains Crisco, and it's fattening.

Am I being a turd about all this?  I don't think so, and here is why.  I believe there really are absolutes when it comes to "quality".  Most of us would have no argument about this if we were comparing a Mercedes to a Ford Pinto, an Armani to a Sears suit, or a Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon to a Mogen David bottle of wine.  Corn and pie crust are not quite as obvious, and one could argue that accepting a slightly lower quality in one of these is not as important as the choice of a car or a house.  The irony in the corn and crust examples is that what I believe to be the higher quality choice may even be less expensive than the alternative; you are almost certainly paying a premium for the convenience of a ready-made crust, or for getting corn from the grocery rather than locating and stopping at a roadside vegetable stand.  So the issue is not about cost in these examples, it is mostly about a loss of collective memory. 

What bothers me about all this is that there seems to be a degradation of so many aspects of modern life, and it is almost always driven by what is convenient.  After a while, we accept the new lowered bar as normal.  Each generation of humans experiences a "ratcheting down" in their acceptance of the new normal, so that what was once good quality becomes just so-so, and almost no one remembers how it used to be.  The tough part is figuring out whether elderly people (the keepers of the past) really remember that an item was of higher quality in the old days, or whether it is just their failing or romantic memories of their youth .  And, of course, many aspects of life, like medical care, have gotten much better over time. 

This topic is actually a huge one, and can apply to many areas: the importance of high quality habitat in nature and the integrity of natural ecosystems, the quality of the food we eat daily, and the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe.  For now, I've said enough and I need to keep my mouth shut.  In fact, last week we had dinner at my daughter's after she had just returned from the local grocery.  Half way through, Mitch said, "Aren't those tomatoes great?"  I bit my tongue, looked at my son-in-law with a big smile, and said, "I love ya man!"