by Alice DeLuca
A Brief History of Creamed Corn and What to Pack in Your Hurricane Survival Kit
This season, our thoughts turn to hurricanes and the darker part of the year. My own thoughts wander quite a bit, as a matter of course, and I find myself thinking about creamed corn, and specifically canned creamed corn, a staple of the American baby boomer childhood larder.
Creamed corn and a particular type of silver-labeled canned peas are tied to deep memories of preparations for stormy weather. We always had cans of corn, peas and baked beans, and kerosene and candles, in case of emergencies, storms, and power failures.
Canned creamed corn is a convenience food from long ago, before corn became the dirty four-letter word of the ecological gastronomic world. Once upon a time, corn was a revered and important staple food of the Americas, a part of religious ceremonies for the Pueblo and Navajo peoples.[i] It is still the staple food of many parts of the Americas. So versatile is it that it has been exploited in every imaginable way, to fuel cars, to make cups, to thicken foods that do not even require thickening. Its newfangled uses make it a hot commodity, desired all over the world and factory-farmed to produce more, and more and more. The little field of corn, fertilized perhaps with fish heads, is not the source of the corn that most people eat.
My father used to talk about his mother’s summer canning activities, just after rural electrification came to his small logging community in the Pacific Northwest. He remembered her working, a blue glow from her kerosene stove lighting up the porch of his rural world, as she canned vegetables every night to last them through the winter. He said she worked all the time, every day and late in to the evening, a strong woman who worked hard her whole life. She put her clothes through a manual wringer to dry them before hanging them on the line, and she grew and canned her family’s food. When she obtained an ice box, she waited for the ice man to deliver the ice to keep it cold. The women who lived that way did not do it out of choice but from necessity. How lucky she might have felt to open a can of creamed corn, the whir, whir as the metal can gave in to the steady assault of a simple can opener; the easy slushing noise of the creamed corn as it slid in to the pot.
When I think of “creamed” vegetables, my pedantic mind sees cream, and plenty of it. I love the flavor and texture of cream. The paradoxical canned “cream style” corn contains not a drop of cream. Modern cans contain corn, water, modified food starch, sugar and salt. The mixture has a kind of slimy bad voodoo about it, and I have used it only occasionally when trying out recipes for cornbread.
Here is the contents of a newly opened can of commercial creamed corn, oozing out in to the plate. The material is thick and gooey, with an odd smell:
Here is fresh corn that has been “creamed” by hand using a Lee’s commercial Corn Cutter and Creamer. Notice the “milk” around the edges, the light yellow color of scrambled egg, and the smell of fresh corn:
My favorite way to cook fresh corn is a sort of cream-style using actual cream, where the corn and the cream form their own sauce: in a 10-inch frying pan stir-fry a minced small onion in 1 or 2 tablespoons of sweet butter for 5-10 minutes, add corn cut and scraped from 5 or 6 ears of freshly picked corn, the leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme; stir until heated through, pour in 3-4 tablespoons of heavy cream, stir until heated through, season with salt and pepper, and serve it up right away. You can’t go wrong, cooking corn in this way; you can add a little bacon, some parsley…. Serve with a salt grinder at the table, for those who like salt at the front end of the flavors.
The Government and the Markets care about creamed corn. The U.S. has standards for grades of canned cream style corn – in the version adopted in 1957, over 50 years ago[i] the best of creamed corn products – Grade A – must meet this standard:
Good consistency means that the canned cream style corn, after stirring and emptying from the container to a dry wet surface, possesses a heavy cream like consistency, with not more than a slight appearance of curdling, forms a slightly mounded mass, and that at the end of two minutes after emptying on the dry flat surface there is practically no separation of free liquor.
Tender means that the kernel are in the milk, early cream, or middle cream stage of maturity, have a tender texture, and that pieces of the interior portion of corn kernels or ground kernels are characteristic of sweet corn in the milk, early cream, or middle cream stage of maturity.
Perhaps it is the requirement that there be “no separation of free liquor” that inspires the manufacturers of creamed corn to add thickeners to creamed corn. The addition of thickeners to this product is one of the great mysteries, in my opinion.
Regarding the markets, on Amazon.com you can purchase, today, for $495 US, the 2009-2014 Outlook for Canned Cream-Style Sweet Corn in Greater China[ii]. This is a strategic, econometric study showing potential industry earnings estimates and “latent demand” for cream style corn in over a thousand cities in China. This emerging market suggests that canned creamed corn has a bright future, but what of its past?
Was creamed corn a popular recipe in the mid twentieth century, so that the major corporations were re-producing something everyone loved, due to popular demand? I looked in several books that were go-to books in their day. None of these cookbooks contained a single recipe for creamed corn:
1942 The New American Cook Book
1949 Good Housekeeping Cook Book
1954 New Settlement Cookbook[iii]
1964 Joy of Cooking
I did find a few references to canning “cream-style” corn. In the mid-twentieth century it seems that Americans were canning both whole cobs and “grains and pulp.” In his Gold Cook Book (1948), Chef Louis P. De Gouy gives directions for canning corn two ways. First, he explains how to can “Corn on the Cob” with the cobs intact, and then how to can “Cream-Style” corn with absolutely no cream involved. His cream-style corn is made by scraping the ears of corn and for each quart of grains and pulp adding 2 cups boiling water and 1 teaspoon salt, processing according to his directions. I don’t know whether his directions are truly safe to use for canning a low-acid food like corn. The important thing is that he differentiates between cans of whole cobs and cans of grains and pulp – creamed – corn. Both the 1977 and 2008 editions of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving describe the same method of canning cream-style corn, using slightly more water and only processing pints, not quarts. In these modern canning books there is no sign of canning whole or half ears of corn on the cob. Apparently jars of corn cobs had little curb-appeal and people have since adopted freezing as the method of choice.
In the 1982 Victory Garden Cook Book[iv], Marian Morash describes scraping the corn so that the “milk” spurts out, then cooking it and adding optional cream. To process large amounts of corn she recommends investing in a corn scraper, a “piece of wood on small end legs, with teeth and a dull blade.” Easily found on the internet, the Corn Scraper is an inexpensive item. Here’s a triple action corn cutter creamer for sale today: http://www.canningpantry.com/corn-cutter-wood.html . That’s the high-tech method. The low-tech method is to stand the ear of corn on its end, and use the dull side of a 8-10” chef’s knife to scrape corn in to a bowl. You need a substantial knife for this task – don’t bother trying it with a table knife.
Here is an ear of corn being cut with a Lee’s Corn Cutter and Creamer – in less than 47 seconds per ear – a lot of fun for the whole family, by the way:
Perhaps the canned cream-style corn was a way to use the cobs that were not perfect for canning whole, such as the cobs that had been traumatized by corn earworms, a sort of cost recovery program for corn.
But, my story train is off the tracks again and I will take up where I got derailed — back to the hurricane preparation for the storm of the day: Irene. Today, Mayor Bloomberg of New York is quoted as follows:
“He advised residents to prepare “go-bags” containing water, non-perishable food, medications, important papers and extra house and car keys in the event officials declare the storm dangerous enough to evacuate. The areas affected include lower Manhattan, southeast Queens, Brooklyn’s beach communities including Coney Island and coastal areas of Staten Island, Bloomberg said.”[i]
How many cans of creamed corn and tiny peas will be in the messenger bags with New Yorkers leaving the East Village and Queens to escape the storm? That is the question.
[i] Keegan, Marcia. Pueblo & Navajo cookery . Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Earth Books, 1977. Print. [ii] Shorter, Chere. “United States Standards for Grades of Canned Cream Style Corn.” STANDA~1CANNEDCNCORNCS.PDF. Version July 1, 1957. United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2011. <www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3010 [iii] “Amazon.com: The 2009-2014 Outlook for Canned Cream-Style Sweet Corn in Greater China: Icon Group International: Books.” Amazon.com: Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2011. <http://www.amazon.com/2009-2014-Outlook-Canned-Cream-Style-Greater/dp/product-description/B001SK44XK/ref=dp_imagepop_readmore_b?ie=UTF8&n=283155&s=books>. [iv] Compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander, The New Settlement Cook Book,N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1954. Print. [v] Morash, Marian. The Victory Garden Cookbook . New York: Knopf, 1982. Print. [vi] Goldman, Henry. “Hurricane Irene May Require NYC Evacuations, Bloomberg Says – Businessweek.” Businessweek – Business News, Stock Market & Financial Advice. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2011. <http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-08-25/hurricane-irene-may-require-nyc-evacuations-bloomberg-says.html>.