September and corn are pretty much synonymous in my mind. Corn on the cob, hot and buttered, is always a treat at this time of the year, but it’s also a time of many old memories.
From the livingroom window of our farmhouse in Auburn, I can look across the road to a corner of a field where our family once hosted an annual corn roast.
The ones I recall best were in the early 1950s. All the neighbors were invited. It was a late afternoon party that extended well into the evening hours when guests of all ages moved close to the dying embers of a huge bonfire. The glowing coals were just right for toasting marshmallows.
Preparation for the party began with the “menfolk” piling up fuel for the bonfire … lots of old barn boards and dry branches … to a height of 4 or 5 feet. They also set up makeshift tables and benches consisting of boards across saw horses.
The ladies of the farm, as well as relatives and friends, worked in the kitchen on all kinds of food … biscuits, pies, and some vegetable dishes.
Roasting corn in a bonfire was a hit-or-miss proposition. You would carefully choose an ear of corn still wrapped in the husk and toss it toward a bed of coals not too close to the roaring fire.
These days, it’s much easier to control the heat on backyard grills, but you miss the excitement of braving the bonfire flames. You had to place that ear of corn where you thought it will not burn to a crisp. You peeled the husk back, hoping for a minimum of blackened kernels.Perfectly cooked corn was very rare, but that was part of the appeal of a corn roast. You tried to come as close to edible as possible.
More than 100 years ago, my great-grandfather wrote a detailed article published in the Lewiston Evening Journal. He extolled the virtues of yellow corn. That was a time when a grade of white corn was grown for cattle feed. No one ate “cow corn.” I remember in the 1950s that “sugar and gold” was a variety considered ideal for the dinner table or the corn roast.
Close to 20 acres of corn still grow on our field, but it’s once again grown for cows. Our neighbor, who owns a large dairy farm a short distance from us, now leases that field. He raises the corn there, and on other nearby land. It’s just about time for the large farm machinery to arrive. Row after row of corn will be quickly cut and chopped for silage that will be fed to the dairy cows in coming months.
My corn-season memories include harvests of our fields when the yield was meant for human consumption. It went to the Burnham & Morrell corn shop on Lake Auburn Avenue where the Lake Auburn Towne House apartments now stand.
As a student at Washburn School – the original two-story building with a bell tower – I was fascinated by the mid-September activity not far down the street that I could see from the schoolyard. Truck after truck unloaded ears of corn onto a conveyor belt that moved it to the large white building. I knew the corn wound up in cans on the grocery store shelves, but I never saw that mysterious process that took place inside the corn shop.
When I was a few years older, I worked with my father and grandfather on the corn harvests. We stripped thousands of ears off the stalks and tossed them into our old Ford truck with high wooden sideboards.
I learned to drive in that truck, although it was not much like an automobile. I could barely reach the brakes or clutch. It had a starter push-button on the dashboard, where you also pulled out the choke knob. A small lever behind the steering wheel was manipulated to “advance the spark” and coax the engine into action.
Farm stands now give us easy access to top-quality corn, easily husked and boiled. But I never eat an ear of corn without thinking of those neighborhood corn roasts.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]