The Sweetness of Summer

by Ray Linville

We’re in the midst of my favorite season, the time that Silver Queen and other sweet corn sparkles on display at farmers markets and roadside stands. Their kernels glisten like pearls.

Once or twice a week now, my family and I look for where a local farmer is selling fresh sweet corn. When we buy in the mid-afternoon, our hope is that we are buying ears picked that morning.

farm LLL-5681Buying sweet corn as soon as it’s picked is critical. It loses freshness and sweetness rapidly after being picked, and the loss rate increases with temperature. Ears harvested early in the morning are more than 10 to 20 degrees cooler than when harvested later in the day. That’s why in this hot weather the best sweet corn is found at farmers markets and roadside stands.

When I was growing up, sweet corn was a seasonal food, limited to the growing season. It never came from a can. With more than 200 varieties, sweet corn can be white, yellow, or bicolor. I prefer white because it reminds me of Silver Queen, which was so plentiful back then. It was wrapped tightly in green husks that were my job to strip, which I extremely disliked but quickly forgot about when I could sink my teeth into the small, tender kernels.

Before shucked ears are put in a pan to boil, I usually take a few bites of an ear to see how sweet it is. For me, sweet corn is as good raw as it is cooked. In fact, some of us boil sweet corn only because we’re so used to boiling the starchy, chewy field corn that needs aggressive cooking.

In contrast to field corn, sweet corn is grown for human consumption. Because it accumulates about two times more sugar than field corn, it’s much more enjoyable.

Sweet corn has a celebrated history in our area like elsewhere in the South and on the East Coast. Native to the Americas, corn was introduced early to colonial explorers and settlers by several Native American nations, but sweet corn does not appear in any written records until 1779 when the Iroquois introduced it to settlers. Fortunately for us, sweet corn has only improved with age.

There’s nothing like having an ear of Silver Queen anchoring a plate at dinner, and it balances well with any meat. Its ears are l-l-l-long, usually 8 to 9 inches, and an ear has 14 or 16 rows of kernels. (Do you know that corn always has an even number of rows?)

Sweet corn is true bliss, as Garrison Keeler, host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” acknowledges in his song “Sweet Corn:” “O that fresh sweet corn that the Lord sent down, so we know how heaven will be.”


Linville is a contributing writer for the N.C. Folklife Institute and writes about Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at