When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence. Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen, due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.
While working in our kitchen one day in the height of corn season, I got a phone call from a friend who is also an aspiring poet/writer specializing in food and…shall I say “sensual writing.” As I was listening to her latest passages, one of my chefs set a hot pan of freshly roasted corn down on the counter to cool right by me. He had cooked it in the husks and I tore off a little of the ridged, warm, pliant wrapper and pressed it to my lips.
“Oh, Man” I helplessly let out. My female essayist friend on the phone intoned in her warm Spanish-inflected voice, “Norman likes that part, eh?” But it was the corn. I didn’t explain. I didn’t wish to diminish her happiness with her writing skills. But now I was hopelessly distracted into a glowing memory connection. And while limbs were writhing on the other end of the phone, the only ears I wanted to nibble were coming into view through memory-land.
It was an early dusky evening in the late summer of my rural Illinois childhood. Our windows were always rolled down in the summer then and as we pulled into the church parking lot it was as if an air-shaft to sweet heaven was pouring directly down and engulfing us all. It was the one night of the year our church held its “Corn Roast.” I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough! The men and women working there had bushels upon bushels of corn that grew in the fields all around us and were working feverishly over the huge glowing charcoal braziers to meet the crowd’s demands. Whatever else was served escapes me.
Corn is native to the New World. Pueblan Indians speak of corn as “the fifth element”; there was earth, air, fire, water — and corn. That last sentence should be read slowly. We are keenly appreciative of how central rice is to the Asian diet. Perhaps we take more for granted that the European diet from which most of our ancestors migrated to American soil was heavily reliant on wheat. But when Columbus got here it was a world of corn. It was only through the pilgrim’s acceptance of and adaptation to corn that allowed for their very survival.
Betty Fussell wrote a definitive book on corn (Crazy for Corn). She states in it, “We don’t just eat and drink corn as a vegetable and a grain. We eat it converted through fodder into pork chops and beef steaks, chickens and eggs, milk and cheese. We drink it as beer and whisky and soda pop. Corn is the base not just of our food chain but of our industrial chain. Industry eats corn chemically as an oil, a starch and a sugar. Anything petroleum can do, corn can do better. We use this industrially converted corn in thousands of different products from cradle to grave, from talcum powder to embalming fluid. Every one of our lives is touched every day by an invisible network of corn”.
The fields are turning golden as summer seeps northward across America again. I’m going to call my writing friend and see what she has to say on the subject…