I have a very clear memory of learning how to choose the right ear of corn. It's weird how that stuff stays with you.
I remember my mother leaning in and showing me all the parts of an ear, curling back the deepest bit of husk so we could see whether the kernels beneath were plump and juicy — or dried out, sad, like rows of tiny teeth.
This was probably at a farm stand or grocery store somewhere in the New York metro area, but my mother's family (along with many other families) also used to drive out to farm stands in New Jersey, particularly on the way to the Jersey Shore, to buy bags and bags of white-kerneled, pearly, fragrant sweet corn, the kind you can eat raw.
That is what summer tastes like and smells like to me. Knowing how to choose the right ear is knowing how to unlock that memory.
Since we're approaching prime sweet corn season, we could all use a refresher on how to pick the freshest when pawing through a bin of sweet corn on the side of the road or supermarket. But I didn't want to just go by what my mom told me, so I asked cookbook author and Williamstown resident Jennifer Trainer Thompson for her tips for picking out corn, too, now that the season is upon us.
Here are her five sweet tips for buying the best sweet corn:
1 Fight the urge to peel: Don't peel back the husk. Apparently, this dries out the kernels, and people find it rude. Thompson says she'll only do it if she sees others have. This seems understandable — other customers probably don't want to buy manhandled corn.
2 Read between the corn silk: Look at the tassels. If the corn silk is brown, dried out, or black and slimy, the ears are probably on the older side. Corn keeps for a while, but like everything, it's better to buy fresh.
3 Consider the source: "I judge a corn by its cover," Thompson said. "I go to a reliable farmstand — or if it's a cute no-nonsense little makeshift stand by the side of the road, with an honors system box, I suspect the corn has probably been picked that day and is good."
4 Get hands on: Feel for kernels. You can feel for plump corn kernels through the husk; just press around lightly with your fingers. You want to feel for firm, fat kernels, no gaps.
5 Inspect the husk: "If the stalk looks wilted or a bit dented, I tend to avoid it," Thompson said. "I try to envision that husk on the stalk, and me picking it, and what it would look like."