The idea of corn on the cob as a solo course we got from a poolside lunch at our friend Jimmy Schwabacher’s under that up-market Carmel Valley sky. That was some time back, but not as long ago as the 30s when I remember traveling “up the valley” with my parents (could I have been in the rumble seat of the green ’37 Chevy?) to buy corn at thirty cents a dozen, the price from outer space. Jimmy served us three ears each and I would say two are the minimum – with nothing else on a big plate. He was right, of course: corn on the cob does need one’s undivided attention. Wasn’t there an old cartoon showing a diligent canine gastronome working his way across the kernel keyboard until the bell rings?
And as for that expression to serve a vegetable “in state,” I can trace it back another generation. My Zeisler Bloomfield grandmother, an expert, by the way, in the art of seven layer cakes — and she had a diploma in piano from the Vienna Conservatoire, signed by Hellmesberger himself — was writing home from Algiers in 1905 where she’d accompanied her Sanskritologist husband to a conference of “Orientalists,” and the dinner she reports on from the garden-surrounded Beau Séjour Hotel positioned a nice helping of spinach exactly thus. But one didn’t dine on spinach alone in old Algiers, there was soup, fish, chicken and artichokes, mutton and lettuce salad, hot baked apples, figs, nuts and raisins.
Back at 861 Park in Baltimore, my father and aunt read that this meal was “rather well cooked.”
My grandmother, perhaps for her sanity, only played her Steinway at holiday parties on Park Avenue. Concertizing she left to her assorted cousins including the one who was known as the Jupiter of the Octaves and scared the cook with his budding keyboard genius — I’m sure he was a little stuck up as well.
Her letters from the field were a little bossy when my teenage father with his head in the clouds needed to be reminded about some prosaic duty, probably monetary, but the warmth in them is unmistakeable. They unroll a Time Machine tapestry of travel in the age before airborne cattle cars came into vogue; the inconveniences in 1905, except for what one sea captain called “that confused ocean,” were simply different.
Read here about the market in Gibraltar with its profusion of flowers and fruits along with “live chickens and doubtful looking eggs,” potato races and three-legged races on board the Dominion liner crossing the Mediterranean (I don’t think this was a “Love Boat”), “noise and fleas” in Bologna (bad luck, I suspect) and only delight in Venice . . .
Steam your allotment of ears of corn with a pinch of sugar for about 10 minutes and serve with a crock of butter and no frills.