We have had our first taste of sweet corn for the season.

That’s an annual milestone that our family has marked for generations. The only difference is that now we buy it rather than grow it, and the supermarkets don’t have to wait for the local farms to deliver fresh produce. It comes pretty much year-round from all over the world.

The first sweet corn harvest of the season actually rated newspaper headlines at one time. It was kind of an informal competition among local market gardeners to pick the first ears of that anxiously-anticipated crop, and my father and grandfather always tried to have our Echo Farm in Auburn among the leaders. Much of Echo Farm’s production of beans, peas, spinach, lettuce, potatoes and other products went to Olfene’s grocery store on Court Street in Auburn. I have found references to that store in copies of the Maine Register as early as 1898-99. It was called Olfene and Holmes then, and was located at 168 Main St.

On Aug. 5, 1933, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran a story that said, “locally, the farmers who brought into market the first sweet corn were Raymond Hearn of South Auburn and R. A. Ryerson of Lake Street. The first is with his father, Joseph Hearn, on a big farm near Penley’s Corner; the latter is a city farmer almost in the heart of the city.

It was news that day to learn that Hearn brought 50 dozen ears on July 29.

The story said the new corn was “well filled and ready to eat,” and it credited a soil of “light texture, tending to sandy” with growing a prize crop.

“At any rate, it grew the earliest corn in large quantity this season hereabout,” it said.

Before modern transportation and preservation methods made it possible to deliver fresh produce to the Twin Cities daily, the area’s homemakers watched the news and conferred with their neighbors about the status of nearby market gardens. I remember that “sugar and gold” was a new variety of sweet corn when I was a young boy, and it seemed that everyone was talking about its delicious quality compared to all-yellow kernels on the ears we had been accustomed to eating.

A pleasant memory from those long-ago late summer days was an annual neighborhood corn roast that called for days of preparation. Near a corner of our gardens, a jumbled pile of firewood grew as the event approached.

Friends and neighbors began arriving late in the afternoon on the appointed day, and they pitched in to help members of my family. The big bonfire was lit and it blazed high and hot for a couple of hours. The goal was to create a large mound of glowing coals rather than flames that couldn’t be approached.

Ears of corn were soaked in tubs of water for hours before the meal. They were never husked. The wet husks served to steam the corn inside rather than burning the kernels.

Careful watch of the roasting corn assured it would come out just right.

Nevertheless, some guests would forget to check their corn, and they always insisted that the blackened kernels were “just how I like it.”

Potatoes also went into the hot coals where they baked slowly. Sometimes, lobsters and clams were a part of the feast, but corn was the principal reason for the gathering.

The feast included a variety of foods prepared and brought by the guests.

There were no lawn chairs or buffet tables. Food was set out on boards placed on boxes and seating was on logs or the ground.

The youngsters liked the chance to cook some hot dogs on a stick, and there were plenty of marshmallows for kids to roast when the coals had died down sufficiently.

I have often wanted an opportunity to recreate that kind of corn roast, but corn from the supermarket or farm stand would now take the place of home-grown “sugar and gold.”

It’s very satisfying to see excellent support of today’s farmers’ markets in large and small communities. Recent news also tells how young people in urban areas are learning about nutrition and growing vegetables through programs such as the local Youth Gardeners Program and Lots to Gardens.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending e-mail to [email protected]


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