Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 14 • July 26 - Aug 1, 2007
now in our 37th season

It's the Corn

by Robert P. Barsanti

Like many men of a certain age, I often look down and wonder where the weight came from.  One moment, I was sprinting around the parks and playgrounds of my youth, biking a hundred miles through the hills of Vermont and swimming just competitively enough to win a spot on the second relay.  Then, in a moment, my belly had domed and the steps that were once so light have become heavy and plodding. 

Of course, I know who to blame: Mom and Dad.  My mother had a gift for both comfort food and location food.  She taught me, early on, that candy bars and devil dogs never let you down.  Each time you unwrap one, they deliver on the same milky chocolate or the creamy filling.  A bad day brightened considerably with the addition of an Entennman’s Raspberry Danish. 

Moreover, any car trip was not just for the sights and sounds, but for the taste buds as well.  Our yearly trip to the Vineyard included hurricane eggs and portugese sweet bread from the Black Dog, donuts and blueberry pie from the Up-Island Bakery, and chowder from a back door porch in Menemsha. 

I would like to blame my current weight, along with a host of other weaknesses and foibles, upon my parents.  However, like postponed bills and checks, the issue keeps coming back to me.  We all make choices and most of my good choices at the table are bad ones at the scale.

Nantucket, regrettably, is a buffet of history and memory.  My island map is laid out in desserts and snacks.  Watermelon Creams come off the boat, then you roll up Orange Street for the butterscotch brownies, cinnamon twists, and Italian subs from Henry’s.  After making the turn at Downyflake, I head back into town by way of Cliff Road and chocolate chip cookies. 

As they are unique, my little Atlas of foods affirms what I want to think of the island.  I want a Nantucket that bakes the rolls in the morning and then makes the sandwich for you as you wait in line.  I want to live in a place that hasn’t been shrink-wrapped and commoditized into a Big Y Convenience Center.  In eating all of my fattening little friends, I think back to how the taste of them hasn’t changed in the decades that I have been consuming them.  The size of my waistline illustrates how much affirmation I need in our modern age of sewers, Bluefin Developments, and hedges.

My best and most memorable meals on island haven’t come from the island stores; most of us see the coffee and cookies of the day as the commas and periods that fill out the sentence of our day.  The exclamation points come at our own table.

Late July brings all sorts of pleasures to the table.  The blueberries still hide in some thickets, but the raspberries and the strawberries are going strong, and the blackberries are coming.  They are slowly plumping themselves out on the vine and warming in the fog.  I pick the blackberries in the afternoon, wash the spiders off (crunchy!) then bake them up into the New England Triple Play of Cobblers to Buckles to Crisp.

Late July, however, is reserved for corn and tomatoes.  Sometime, in the middle of May, the corn gets planted.  Then, with luck, some rain, and a lot of sun, the stalks will rise, the stalks will turn dark green, the silks will get long, and the deer will stay deep in the thickets.  Then, either in the back yard or in the farm yard, the corn will come in.

Years ago, I spent a summer working as a prison guard in beautiful Billerica, Massachusetts.  During the summer, many of the better behaving inmates drove the tractors and tended to the corn growing all around the Big House.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t sell the corn; instead we brought it home by the bag each night. Sweet, delicious, and I was thoroughly sick of it by August.

On Nantucket, the growing season starts later.  The inmates in Middlesex County will have been eating corn on the cob for a month before the first ears come from Nantucket farms.  My taste for corn has returned and, even though I have to pay for it these days, it seems to taste much sweeter.

Corn, like fish, needs to be fresh.  Like cookies, corn is stuffed to the gills with sugar and starch; the longer it sits around in the refrigerator, the less flavor it has.  Unlike cookies, donuts, and Italian subs, corn has deep roots here.  The cookies that I love so much travel 1800 miles before they reach my dirty hands.  The Italian sub travels even further.  The roots for the ham in the sandwich come from a feed lot in Iowa, or China.  Our corn comes from here; its nutrients are from glacial till pushed here on the great Wisconsin ice sheet.  Like coffee, olive oil, wine, and maple syrup, Nantucket Corn has a “gout de terroir” or a taste of place.

The Nantucket of Gulfstreams and broadband is a culture of transport.  People travel here from thousands of miles away, buy clothes made thousands of miles away, watch television and movies from thousands of miles away, and sleep under sheets from thousands of miles away.  On any given day, we stand on top of a ziggurat of labor and transportation; it works marvelously well when Domino’s delivers the Zing Wings during half time.   Our lives are a moveable feast.

But that’s not what Nantucket is and that isn’t why all of the planes come here; at our best, we are a place apart.  When we affirm what Nantucket is, we think of the buffet of care and of memory.  We have our own “gout de terroir” that comes on the beach or in the moors.  The fog rolls in, air blows a little cool, and the sand gets in your teeth.  My weight, regrettable as it is, comes from the island.  I should love it less and love walking the beaches more.

Yet, were I to feed my family one more time on island, we would begin with gazpacho, have striper with corn on the cob, and a blackberry buckle for dessert.  The Nantucket that I want to hold onto and the Nantucket I want to pass onto them is one of corn.

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