365-Day-Drive-to-Find-My-Tribe

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I’d corresponded last month with Mary, a manager at Nicola’s Books, an indie bookseller here in Ann Arbor about, you guessed it, the novel. She’d advised me to reconnect after March 5th, after they’d geared up with their new inventory. But I’ve learned a little in the meantime. I emailed her today:

Mary, thanks so much. It’s great that you do something to promote indie authors in cooperation with your indie bookseller status – I’ve learned that it’s an incredibly tough business all around to sell books! Since your reply I’ve acquired some experience with a couple other local indie booksellers and I must say that, in all honesty and in a spirit of supportive professionalism, the experience has been less than inspiring. How so?

I’m sure you would agree that for new titles and more so for authors without a platform (besides that of the so-called “emerging author”) it has to do with placement, display and, heaven knows, a review. So that, as in your store, only the very fortunate books placed face-out on your “Recommended” shelves, or prominently within their proper genre section (sci-fi in my case), accompanied by a staff review card happily extolling the book’s merits, possess anything more than a chance-in-hell (excuse my French) of selling. If that. And while I’ve indeed resided in Ann Arbor for, I don’t know, thirty years or so, it’s just my personal opinion, perhaps, that a “local author” moniker isn’t an effective sales tool.

Consignment. Again, thanks in advance  for even offering the opportunity. I must say, however, that I’d rather your store purchase the book via Ingramspark which offers the standard industry discount and return policy, so that, to make it even easier on you, if my book didn’t sell after three months I would purchase it from you myself (just email me when you pull it and I’ll zip over and get it off your hands) and you would of course not be reordering it, no harm, no foul, my book gets a registered sale and we part ways good friends. Otherwise, barring your acceptance of the Ingram scenario, I would be happy to sign your consignment agreement for a paperback or hardcover as long as the book receives preferred placement and a staff review per the above. You might be grimacing at this point.

Nonetheless, again in the spirit of indie cooperation, support and well wishes, please know that, regardless of your decision to display the novel or not, I would be very glad to deliver gratis copies to the number of folks on your staff who are sci-fi fans. No sales pitch, no pressure, I wouldn’t even pester you or your staff with my presence – I’d merely have the books shipped directly to your store as promotional gifts, end of story, no follow up on my part, just reader-to-reader goodwill. Thanks again, I know you’ve heard and seen it all in this business, I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, the window of opportunity for TIME CRIME as a debut novel from a debut author is closing. If it was ever open to begin with. I’m not whining or complaining, just stating my interpretation of the state of affairs. It’s a painful learning curve, indeed, coming face-to-face with the seeming impossibility of it all, of ever finding a way to emerge from the void, from abject obscurity and get read. By someone, anyone. I get it. When I worked in music retail, selling compact discs, and I had to force myself to spend time with releases new and old that I hadn’t heard before and somehow didn’t possess that weird, ineffable “thing,” that compelling, intuitive mutual attraction that cannot, for all the money or marketing effort in the world, be made to exist when it doesn’t, I’d find it painful. Don’t like it, don’t like it, don’t like it, blah, blah, on and on, it’s work, it becomes a job. Again, I get it. So that when my novel shows up unannounced at say, Locus Magazine, along with a wheel barrow load of other wannabes, and the reviewers, having already shoved under their arms anything they’ve been anticipating or feel at least an intuitive curiosity towards and now there’s a heap of “slush” to be, what, reluctantly divvied up between folks – Oh, I guess I’ll take that one, what is it, the girl with the green tear or whatever, another nobody indie first-timer…? – I really can identify. And if a managing editor type rolled her eyes and rubbed her face and said, “Darren, it’s your turn to enter these into Books Received, I know, just suck it up and get it done, you don’t have to read any of it, after all..,” I’d understand. I would.

But it’s crushing me. And I when I’ve convinced myself that, by way of adding the negative keyword phrase “young adult” to my Amazon campaigns I’ve just killed my already pathetically sporadic collection of clicks, because yes, it was only pre-teens attracted to the cartoony, pulpy nature of the book cover with no interest in the content, it also inspires a keen sense of panic. Have I indeed gotten it all wrong – the story, book cover, price, description… everything?

Timelines help. When you’re desperate and becoming convinced you’re a has-been before you’ve even begun, like me, setting a strategy and milestones one by one into the future with a drop dead date, so to say, when you’re going to allow yourself to give up on it all, can serve to keep you going. I don’t know how or why, it just does. So, here it is:

  • First and foremost, I’m hereby awarding myself a full year from publication day 1/31/2020 to work every angle and try every trick I can come up with to gain some traction for the novel. If I can’t generate a handful of devoted readers and a few extra-motivated ones who’ve taken the initiative to bestow upon the world an honest (four or five star!) review or two. Or three. Or four or five. You get the idea. A year’s work doing my very best to keep faith in myself and the book and to market the novel wholeheartedly, as if the world is indeed just waiting to be told about it, that’s all. I can do that. All the while I’m going to learn more about how to skin this cat.
  • And I’m going to keep writing and editing. I’m going to tally up a year’s worth – 365 days – of posts on my website, giving out all I can, preparing the groundwork for a lucky break, or just an interested reader – a curious soul who may become the first member of the Carnegie Olson tribe. And with a little more good fortune, perhaps I’ll scrape up more than one intrepid reader willing to join the TIME CRIME tribe. Which has a ring to it, I think.
  • I’m going to follow up with Locus Magazine next month by email with a query as to the state of the two review copies I sent them. I’m not going to just sit on my hands and get to the end of the year with them having tossed it aside or otherwise not noticed it or forgotten about it or not read the info on the special Ingram insert page where I introduced myself and provided my contact info in lieu of the standard ARC or media kit. Hey, I’m an indie and we break the rules!
  • I’m going to inquire one more time with The Tyee in the hope that they’ll accept a review copy for the “Culture” section of their newspaper.
  • I’m going to inquire with a few British Columbia or at least Haida Gwaii booksellers about stocking (and properly displaying and reviewing) the novel at least based on Vixy being of B.C. origin.
  • I’m going to let the local booksellers off the hook for not being more supportive. It’s their business, they can do what they want, no skin off my nose, no harm, no foul.
  • I’m going to remain in touch with Tilo Schabert whether we ever discuss TIME CRIME again or not – he’s a good man to know and correspond with regarding my mythology scholarship if nothing else. Meanwhile, I envision him enjoying the novel and reviewing it and someday querying me to lecture at Eranos! Why not?
  • I’m going to attend Kripal’s grand opening conference for the Archives of the Impossible at Rice U. October 29 – November 1. I will bring TC1 biz cards and copies of my book. I will not have followed up with him regarding his receipt, or not, of the novel because, well, I sent it to his home address and that’s all I can reasonably do without risking f*cking up my acquaintance with him by way of pitching a book he doesn’t want to read. He’s got to read it to have a chance at liking it but the world-of-action has to help me out a bit on this – it has to work some positive influence on my behalf, so be it.
  • jeffrey j. kripal the archives of the impossiblehttps://jeffreyjkripal.com/work-in-the-future/
  • I will keep tweaking my Amazon ad campaigns – the image of the book has to remain in view.
  • I will consider other forms of paid advertising with intelligent scrutiny – I’m not going to throw money at it. Nevertheless, I’m not going to surrender to the bad advice that an emerging author can’t market their first novel with any effectiveness.
  • I will keep empowering my website for a year, staying abreast of how best to make it better, how best to attract views and blog readers and book buyers and the members of my tribe. Maybe I’ll get a couple of friends out of it if nothing else?
  • I will remain vigilant for any and all worthy and otherwise appropriate opportunities to market TC1 and do my best to shed my preconceptions and adjudications and to follow my heart and when in doubt, as Ari W. suggests, give it out.

At the end of the year, things will have changed for better or worse because it won’t be possible for the world-of-action not to have been influenced by my persistent, relentless, focused, wholeheartedly enthusiastic influence. I will tilt the scales of destiny in my favor. And if January 31st arrives and I’ve not acquired any indication or enough indication of support for my vision of greatness, I’ll reevaluate my strategy. But only then; only after I’ve poured everything into my 365-Day-Drive-to-Find-My-Tribe.

DOP1 VINTAGE POST – Pie of the Storm/Men in Black?/Farm Stand Corn (I took all the photographs myself):

Pie of the Storm

I arrived at the Willis Farm on October 24th at lunch time, or as it’s called in this part of the country: “dinner.” As Paul explained, “dinner” really refers to the size of the meal versus the time it’s served. For most farmers, the biggest meal is often in the middle of the day, to re-energize from the hard work of the morning and to get through the hard physical work still left to do.

When I walked up to the back porch, I could see Paul in the kitchen. The table was set and I hoped I wasn’t holding them up – the drive up from my hotel near Kansas City had me a little behind schedule, and I didn’t want to be late for lunch. We exchanged greetings, shook hands – it was our first meeting face-to-face as we’d previously only emailed each other and talked on the phone. Paul lifted a cast-iron dutch-oven from the oven and cracked the lid. The aroma of roasted pork with root vegetables filled the air at the same time that Phyllis, Paul’s intelligent, engaging and charming wife entered the room. Along with supporting Paul in the business of pastured (or as he calls it “free range”) pig farming, Phyllis maintains their shared passion for the ecology of their own land – their property in Thornton, Iowa – and the politics of farming through her active and outspoken social networking.

The Willis’s have gone to great effort to return their Iowa landscape to its beginnings as part of a natural wetland (as surprising as they may seem) known as the Des Moines Lobe area of the state. Most of Iowa’s farmland was completely transformed – that is to say drained – through the installation of deeply dug drain tile deep, then planted with vast acreage of crops, mostly corn. Their land rolls gently and now, through Paul and Phyllis’s efforts over several years, has acres of prairie and a pond in addition to the farmland. They worked hard to reestablish the original ecology and landscape and by taking a short drive around his property, it was obvious that it was bursting with wildlife – from amphibians like frogs and salamanders, to snakes, ducks, birds of prey, geese, (raccoons and deer Paul tells me), muskrat, etc.

We finished “lunch,” and Phyllis began mixing pie dough for an apple pie using small apples from their farm – sweet and tart with firm flesh. Her recipe calls for the use of lard exclusively in the dough, and I was intrigued to see how she made this – I enjoy baking pies, but since I don’t do it often, I lack what I call “crust confidence” and I typically struggle to roll out a nice thin round crust without getting dough stuck to my rolling pin but hers came out tender and didn’t stick the rolling pin at all – she used plenty of flour, which may help with my dough (which uses half-butter, half-lard) – and she only made one crust per nine-inch pie. Instead of making two crusts, one for the bottom, one for the top of the pie, she simply folded the crust into the pie pan, placed what looked to me like a small amount of the sugared apple slices inside, sprinkled nutmeg on top, and folded over edges of the crust – more like a tart, really – leaving a large hole in the center. It was a simple and appealing preparation. It emerged from the oven very lightly browned, not flaky, but with a pleasant “chew” and with a good balance between filling and crust. It was quite a delicate version.

All of this is in line with the tenants of extensive (as opposed to intensive) pig farming, with its attention to the natural order of things. If you’re in agreement that animal agriculture is a necessary part of human existence, and that there is an agreement between domesticated animals and their human owners – we take care of them and they in turn provide food for us – then good husbandry would follow methods that respect the animal’s natural tendencies as much as possible.[1] Paul’s pigs are as healthy and content as one could imagine. They are curious and active and engage a type of social behavior – sometimes clustering close together, sometimes wandering off by themselves – that is probably not possible with any other farming method.

Pigs, as opposed to cows for instance, are surprisingly wary animals. When anyone approaches them, even someone they know, they tend to scatter quickly – turning and running at least several yards away, only to quickly turn and look at you. From this comfortable and safe distance, they spend a few moments “surveying” you. If you remain still and quiet their curiosity gets the better of them and they slowly return; within a few minutes you’ll find yourself surrounded by pigs, pushing their snouts into your pants legs, nibbling on your shoe laces and generally inspecting you pig-style. If you make a sudden movement, they immediately turn and bolt in the other the direction, this time a shorter distance, but they will return and continue to inspect you until they’re satisfied, after which they finally begin wandering about as if you’re not there. But they’re never actually ignoring you, and they are very sensitive to sound. On one occasion (at Allen Harrison’s farm) my cell phone received a text message and the brief, muffled “ringing” coming from my pocket caused all the closest pigs to scatter as if I’d started yelling and jumping up and down.

Paul did a quick repair of his electric fence, a simple method of establishing, temporarily, his pig pasture boundaries, which he rotates across his land as the seasons pass. This rotation prevents the grass from being trampled and overgrazed by the pigs and it simply mimics the crop rotation methods long used by farmers to keep their fields from becoming depleted. Where there are pigs in pasture this year, next year it may be alfalfa, then corn, then back to pigs, and so forth, the land recovers from each successive use.

He demonstrated the castration of piglets – a discomforting, but very brief procedure for the young animals – the piglets are returned to their mother within minutes. Grasping the hind legs of a piglet, Paul uses a small blade to make a half-inch incision, squeezes the area to expose the tiny testis and in a single motion, swiftly pulls them out and tosses them into the grass, moving quickly on to the next piglet; the procedure takes only seconds, and the discomfort for the piglet is mainly due to being handled by a human and spending a few minutes away from its mother.

I watched Paul, a man in his sixties, demonstrate surprising agility while having to retrieve a batch of piglets from inside a farrowing hut, against the wishes of an unusually anxious and aggressively protective sow. This particular sow became as close to vicious as you could imagine a domesticated animal to be. Paul of course took this in stride – the piglets after all had to be castrated – but had me stay in the bed of the pick up truck. A sow can weigh over several hundred pounds and will bite and severely injure a man if provoked. This sow had several dead piglets in her hut, which is not necessarily unusual – they may die of natural causes or sometimes be accidentally crushed under the sow’s body if she moves and doesn’t see them. With nothing but a small metal blocking board and a pitch fork, Paul nimbly dodged and weaved around the hut, keeping it between himself and the sow as protection and to distract her while he attempted to retrieve the three male piglets that were still alive. This sow, according to Paul, was demonstrating more than typical aggression, and he felt he needed to check up on what may be going on with her – why she was behaving in this unusual way. Snorting, huffing and puffing, mouth open, frothing a little from the exertion, the sow chased Paul around the hut, forcing him to make several attempts at distracting her and reaching in for the piglets, who squealed each time he touched them. When he caught a piglet, he quickly ran over to the truck, and I held out a plastic bucket, filled with straw, that he dropped the animal into.

With all the males in the bucket, Paul stood in the bed of the truck and castrated them as quickly as he could, but the sow was now desperately angry. At one point she tried to jump into the bed of the truck, getting her front legs up on the open tailgate, mouth agape, teeth flashing, snorting. I thought of the movie Jaws where the shark finally jumps into the back of the boat and swallows the flailing captain. It was one of the trickier bits of animal husbandry I’ve witnessed.

Before I give the impression that this was anything but necessary, I want to point out that Paul seemed intent on getting this done without fighting with the sow, or trying to scare her. He did not poke or prod her into submission – he never uses a prod at all – he did not yell or even speak during the process. She was not intentionally threatened or intimidated.

Paul maintains two hoop houses, where the pigs winter in what’s called a “deep bedding” system. Dry corn husks or hay, or both, are added as bedding through the cold months as needed to keep the pig’s area dry. The moist layers beneath decompose into composte, generating heat and, as with all well-managed compost piles, remaining sanitary. In this way, the pigs comfortably pass the winter months. In the spring and summer, the floors of the hoop houses are cleared and left exposed to the sun – the u.v. further sanitizes the ground.

The two boars, over several hundred pounds each at one and a half years old….

It takes experience to interpret animal intelligence and even then, pigs can surprise you. When pulling his pick up out of the pasture, Paul noticed one of his black sows standing on its hind legs, front hoofs on the edge of a large water tank, apparently chewing on the water line. Pigs sometimes like to chew on things besides food – they can be curious, going nose-first through life and using their mouths to investigate newfound items, even tugging or pushing objects playfully, like a dog. In this case, Paul initially thought his sow was doing just that – being curious, and possibly destructive to the water line – so he directed a short honk of his truck horn at her and began driving us towards the water trough. But he quickly changed his mind, saying “Oh, I bet there’s a problem with the water feed – that’s why she’s chewing on the hose” and sure enough, there was a mechanical problem – the water trough was dry and this sow desperately needed water; she was smart enough to go to the source. After a quick fix, fresh water was flowing again and as we pulled away the sow was already getting her fill.

Loading day, Monday morning in the pasture. Paul an Jon, his partner and part-time farmhand, (and me), need to herd a small group – about twenty – market-ready hogs in the pasture, and get them loaded onto a trailer for transport and weighing at the Farmers Livestock Market. We begin be hooking up a low, hydraulically adjustable trailer.

After a short drive, we end up with the pigs at the local Farmers Livestock Market where a semi-trailer has parked with its large pig hauling trailer. In addition to Paul, there were two other Niman farmers unloading their animals. The older of the two, when Paul had introduced me as a writer, was eager to disparage intensive hog-raising, maybe assuming I was a professional and that I’d be able to publish his words; I felt ashamed to not be a real writer but I wasn’t confident enough to admit it. The other farmer was a younger man, maybe in his early thirties and very soft-spoken, but quietly earnest. This was an important day for each farmer because their animals were being weighed on the large scale inside the barn (it seemed like ten or more animals could be weighed at once) and it was this weight that would determine their payment from Niman. Of course they already had a very good idea of how much their hogs weighed and what their total would be but nonetheless, it was judgement day so to say and another season of hog-farming had come to an end for them. Each man received his scale weight from the man who’s sole purpose it was to record it – I think he arrived at the “market” just for this purpose and would depart soon after – and the hogs were loaded onto the big trailer bound for the slaughter facility in Sioux Center, several hours away, where they would be off-loaded to spend the night in lairage.

During my visit, we also took a trip to Mary Ann’s Specialty Foods, where Niman pork is processed into bacon and bone-in or boneless hams. It’s the time of year – late October – when the ham business is running at full tilt – Thanksgiving and Christmas are prime time for hams, and each year varies in terms of whether customers prefer whole bone-in or spiral-sliced bone-in – this year, more orders are being received for the spiral-sliced. The hams and bacon are smoked with apple wood. The facility also prepares ribs. It’s a clean, efficient and bustling operation. The folks there are good-natured, proud of what they do, and seem anxious to expand their operation. Their relationship with Niman Ranch is clearly important, and they were happy to provide Paul a quick tour with me along for the ride.

Men in Black?

Maybe we can blame it all on the United States Government. They subsidize crops, they pocket cash from industry lobbyists, and they send men in black to keep farmers quiet, right? Probably not, but it makes for good conspiracy theories. The USDA, and its subsidiary, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) are indeed big government and by definition they’re slow to respond and part of the problem. But I’m not a cynic when it comes to government. Frustrated, disheartened and often disappointed yes, but I think there’s some good stuff going on in there lately regarding the American food chain. If you poke around the USDA web site, like I’ve done, then you might run across some inspiring initiatives, like this one:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in an effort to “promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to competition and regulatory issues in agriculture,” established a series of five “workshops” that took place March through December 2010 in various cities. These were, according to the DOJ, “the first joint Department of Justice/USDA workshops ever to be held to discuss competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry. They were formatted to provide remarks from various leaders within the USDA and DOJ, applicable state and federal officials from the states in which the workshops were held, and panels featuring ranchers, academics, processors and other industry representatives. The workshops were free, open to the public, and focused on the following issues:

  • Row Crops and Hogs, held in Ankeny, Iowa.
  • Issues in the Poultry Industry, held in Normal, Alabama.
  • Issues in the Dairy Industry, held in Madison, Wisconsin
  • Competition in the Livestock Industry, held in Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Margins, held in Washington D.C.

An overriding concern of the workshops was to address “the dynamics of competition in agricultural markets, including buyer power (monopsony) and vertical integration.” The panelists were encouraged to provide examples of potentially anticompetitive conduct and to discuss that application of antitrust laws to their businesses and agriculture markets in general.

As part of what’s called the “Open Government Initiative,” the USDA, in their own words, is “charged…to transform how government interacts with the public to be more open, transparent & collaborative. This intrigues me.

Farm-Stand Corn

I grew up taking the abundance of food for granted – there was always more food on the table than I could eat and grocery stores in my life have always had a huge quantity and almost infinite variety of stuff on their shelves. It was many, many years before I learned that in some countries, if they even HAD grocery stores, some of the shelves might be empty, and what you could buy was limited to what you saw (no back stock), which might not be much. And that you might have to wait in line all day just to get it. The concept of not being able to buy anything we needed – meat, vegetables, milk, cereal, pasta sauce, bread, sweets, whatever, was completely foreign to me.

I never went hungry until I was twenty-five years old, and even then it was almost on purpose. I lost my job in Michigan and took my meager savings and a one-way train ticket to NYC to look for a job in the “record business”. It was the same self-imposed, contrived and ultimately low-risk vision quest that many young folks undertake in an effort to find themselves and if things got bad enough, I could always rely on my parents to bail me out. But I did try to tough it out on my own, with my own money, or lack thereof, and I didn’t live well, ever, nor eat well for a while – I lived on bagels, apples and bananas for the two weeks or so it took me to get a job and after I got fired, money was always tight. Early on, if I got invited to a record company party that served food it was great because I could shove some cold cuts and bread into my pockets for later. I lost weight even though I didn’t think I had any to lose. I learned that the most expensive thing in my life had become food, and one practical way to save money was to not eat. Anyway, those were the only real hunger pangs I ever experienced, and I won’t forget them. I learned why people have dreams about food. Waking dreams.

Along with the sterile grocery stores I remember from the 1960’s and 1970’s, with their shiny linoleum floors, bright fluorescent lighting and neatly packed shelves, overflowing with boxes and cans of processed food, were the roadside food stands. They existed even within my squeaky-clean suburban world – I guess that’s one advantage the suburbs had over the city – you got at least some measure of exposure to things other than concrete and traffic, but you had to pay attention and look outside of your immediate neighborhood. Or out the window of your parents car as it sped past a cornfield. There might be a tractor in the fields, though I never remember seeing anybody actually in it, let alone anyone outside doing what I thought might have to be done on a farm – weren’t farms supposed to be busy places? They always seemed abandoned – the only indication that anyone was actually working and living there was the obvious fact of the crop in the fields – somebody had to have at least planted it – and the existence of a farm house near the road, though I never saw any kids in the yard or cars coming and going. It just shows you how ignorant I was about what was actually going on at a farm, which was probably a lot of hard work by just a few folks, including the kids, who were probably mucking out a storage building or helping to fix a piece of equipment. To me, it was just a lot of land and hardly any people.

Across the street from my brand new subdivision, with its vast expanse of middle-class houses, clean streets, brand-new trees, brand new schools, and brand new cars in the brand-new driveways, was indeed a farm, apparently. It had a name, but I’ve forgotten it. I never took much interest in it as a kid – I saw the big red barn set back from the road and not much else. Except in the late summer, when my mother would pull the car to the side of the road and park next to the small “stand” that sold fresh corn, presumably from that farm. I only remember the corn, though they probably sold other produce. My mom loved corn-on-the-cob. I’d never call her a foodie – far from it – she enjoyed, like many of her generation, all the new conveniences of modern food production and packing – the boxed cake mixes, the shake-n-bake pork chop seasoning packages, the stove-top-stuffing, the Hungry Jack potato flakes, the Hostess-brand sweets, an endless stream of stuff in boxes, cans, pouches, and packages. She maintained no sentimental farm-to-table attitude whatsoever. But fresh corn – that was another story. I remember the bright green “ears” stacked up on the farm stand counter and my mother and me putting the aromatic cobs, smelling of grassy earth, in paper bags and taking them home where we promptly went about “shucking” them (we called it “husking”). We accomplished this on the back patio because it was messy as hell. I guess everyone’s shucked corn before, but this process is embedded in my memory as a good thing. I think it’s also one of my few memories, along with Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies, of what I came to understand later as a family food “tradition.” We didn’t have many.

When I shuck corn today, it takes me right back. I hold the ear in my hands, the nubby kernels pressing through the moist, bright-green husk under my fingertips, and start at the top, at the place where the brown-black silk tumbles form the ear like a shriveled pompadour, dry to the touch as if scorched but still a little sticky in places. (It was always wise to peel back a little of the top of the husk to check for quality before buying). My first peek at the shiny yellow & white kernels always gives me joy; the squeaky-clean cleanliness of them, their bright newness, just seems so fresh and remarkable. Grabbing a good bunch of husk with your fingers, and getting a good hold on the ear with your other hand, you pull down hard – in one big squawking yank – until you reach the stalk, tearing the juicy husks away, and tossing them in a basket. I remember having a kid’s weaker hands and grabbing too much husk at once and getting stuck part-way down, which was frustrating; you’d have to sort of start over by peeling off layers of husk one or two at time until you thinned out the jammed-up husk enough to tear off the rest. It was always at least partly to do with attitude: you had to approach the ear with proper confidence and strength; you had to mentally prepare yourself. A good, powerful, successful shucking of an ear went quickly and loudly. Freshly picked in-season corn meant their husks were often beaded up with moisture, their raspy layers thickened to bursting, saturated with cellular water. Tearing off corn husks sounded like scrubbing your hands across a wet rubber inner-tube, or the sound of gym shoes on a basketball court, or both. And that unmistakably corn-husky aroma – the smell of late summer – of grass, soil, hot sun and rain water all together.

Ultimately, you were left holding a naked ear of corn. Well, fairly naked. At the top, if it didn’t come completely off in the shucking, were the remains of golden yellow silk, maybe some of that curly brownish-black pompadour, and some lonely strands sticking out from between the shiny rows of kernels. Picking this stuff off was tedious – it got all over your hands, shirt, pants, shoes, the floor, the ground, whatever – and it didn’t pay to get too artistic about it: just get off what you could with a once or twice over, maybe twist the cob in your hand and be done with it. At the bottom, you had the fibrous nub of whitish cornstalk, usually several inches long, which you snapped off with a “pop!” to a reasonable length (so as to be able to get the cobs in the cooking pot) and moved on to the next one. The goal always seemed to be shucking as fast as you could, as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t know what the hurry was, but now I suspect that it was just a naturally competitive thing to do amongst us kids. Or maybe it was somehow encouraged, unconsciously, by my parents with their understanding that every minute that went by caused the corn to suffer a loss of sweetness….

After shucking, the ears went into a pot of boiling water, then onto a platter and onto the table. If we had burgers, hotdogs, pork chops or something else, I don’t remember – I just remember the process of grabbing the hot ears and buttering them up and down while trying not to burn your fingers. Then, as the corn began to cool off a little, we all tried to mimic my mother’s eating technique, which somehow seemed uniquely efficient and entertaining. She produced the loudest and best “munching” sound while demonstrating the most mechanical “typewriter” action – all good stuff when you’re a kid. My mother selected an ear, liberally buttered it with a knife, then began patiently munching from one end to the other, but only in one direction. Upon getting to the end, she returned, like a typewriter carriage, back to the other end, starting all over again with focused concentration and mindful enjoyment. She also really dug her teeth in, scrunching up her face and mouth, teeth exposed, lips curled, to get maximum bite. In this methodically mechanical way, she got a lot more corn off her cobs than the rest of us did, and it was obvious when we all began tossing our spent ears back onto the platter, reviewing each other’s work so to say. A kernel-less cob was good. My mother’s were always almost kernel-less; thinner and lighter than everyone else’s, because she grazed the hell out of them, enjoying, obviously, the entire experience and getting the most out of it. Mine, to this day, always appear at least a little neglected, heavy with missed and poorly harvested kernels, mostly at the ends, where I get picky, and mashed kernels that I didn’t dig my teeth into enough, leaving too much corn kernel stuck behind their sockets.

The taste? As with all good and simple things, there’s nothing like it; it captures a bold, pure force from the ground. Nowadays, I know an even more satisfying way of cooking corn-on-the-cob than boiling it – leaving the husks on and roasting them in an oven or on the grill until the husks begin to brown and turn brittle, blackening at the ends. It takes about thirty minutes at 350F unitl the kernels are tender, aromatic and tasty – the water in the roasting husks steams the kernels and the cooked husks add roasty goodness. The resulting sweet and earthy starchiness, with melted butter, salt and pepper satisfies my mid-western soul and tastes, to me, like a summer day looks and feels. Farm-to-table eating at its best.

I haven’t spent much time at all on farms. My uncle had some property that he kept some horses, dogs, cats and the occasional duck or two on, but he left the crop-growing to the neighbors. One of which I remember had a corn field that us kids could walk into. My memory of standing quietly among the orderly corn rows is still vivid. The soft brown soil that your feet sank into. The greener-than-green corn stalks, taller than me, with their floppy leaves rustling in the breeze. The half-size ears just beginning to un-tuck themselves, jutting up at an angle near the sturdy stalk. An overgrown “weed” or two, looking obvious and wrong, like someone trying to hide behind the curtains with their feet sticking out. The blue sky above, between the rows, and bright clouds moving in and out of view. The here-and-now of it all that I think I understood even as a kid. There was also, after a time, the sound of my brother’s or my cousin’s voices, coming distant and directionless, from somewhere else within the cornfield, “Hey, where are you?!” It made suddenly anxious to think I might be lost in there….

I’m reminded of an article in a Zingerman’s newsletter in which Ari Weinzweig, co-owner, interviewed Roadhouse chef and part-time farmer Alex Young about what got him excited about growing his own crops. Alex said:

“It started as a hobby, but what got me hooked was when one day I had hand dug some “grabbing” potatoes (early potatoes stolen by reaching your hands into the hill) that I brought in and put on a dinner special. That night some regular diners were at the Roadhouse and I was explaining to them the special that they’d ordered and really, really enjoyed. What I learned was that the rewards that many of us become chefs for, which is the gratitude and joy you receive when someone really enjoys your food, was greatly increased by having labored so hard to grow the food as well as dig it up, and then get to prepare it. It definitely gave me goose bumps.”[2]


[1] For a more detailed analysis of my views on this topic, see my PowerPoint presentation (as presented at Zingerman’s Camp Bacon IV, June 1, 2013).

[2] “Zingerman’s Co-Founder Ari Weinzweig Interviews Roadhouse Chef and Managing Partner Alex Young about what’s Sprouting Up at Cornman Farms,” Zingerman’s News, Issue #221, July-August 2010, p.6.