13 August 2020

Phyllotactic defect in corn kernels - updated

Kernels on a cob of corn, showing an interesting phyllotactic defect where regular columns of kernels suddenly make a checkerboard pattern and then revert to columns again.
Yesterday we got our first fresh sweet corn from the local farmers' market, and like the one illustrated above, it was the bicolor variety, which we favor.

As soon as corn is picked from the stalk, the natural sugars begin to convert to starch, so people who buy days-old corn from grocery store bins never learn how great it can taste. You should buy it from a farmer who has picked it that morning; even better is to pick it yourself in the field and run (don't walk) with it to the kitchen where you have the water already boiling or the microwave already preset.

In 1965 my second paid summer job (after a disastrous effort to sell woolen clothes door-to-door in July) was at the Green Giant packing plant in Le Sueur, Minnesota, where I lubricated the cookers and watched the line for dented cans coming out of the canning machine. We worked 12-hour shifts at minimum wage (and no work/no pay on rainy days if the trucks couldn't get into the field), but once a week they would bring a truckload of corn, dump it into garbage cans into which steam was fed, and provided tubs of butter...

Photo credit: Stephen W. Morris' Flickr photostream, via Suddenly.

Reposted from 2009 (!) to add some information about the above-mentioned summer job, because yesterday I found some stuff while sorting through old memorabilia. 

My prior summer job had been an effort to sell woolen clothing door-to-door in June.  It was commission-only, and I had earned $5 the first week but had spent $5.50 parking my car downtown.  My dad was a traveling salesman, so I couldn't work for him.  My mother opined that when she was growing up (1920s), her older brothers worked seasonally for Green Giant, so she called the factory and scheduled an interview for me, then drove me down.

The personnel office apparently took one look at me and realized I was not going to do well on a field crew, but they offered me a job in the processing plant.  I had zero relevant skills, so they offered me an entry-level position in the room with the cooker machines, which I thought was better than nothing.

The processing plant (now demolished) was in the heart of the town, so mom drove me around and found a house with a "room for rent" sign within walking distance, at a reasonable price ($6 per week), with IIRC a hot plate provided in the room.  She told me she'd be back when the summer was over.

The plant ran two 12-hour shifts, so I rotated each week from one to the other.  But the length of the shift varied according to the availability of material (corn or peas) to be processed.  If rain precluded getting equipment into the field, you didn't work - and didn't get paid.  This was my work schedule for the month of July:

Some rainout days, some short-shift (4-5 hour) days, some long ones (10-12).  For the months of July and August I worked 427 hours in 50 days, so it actually averaged 8 hours/day.

The work was not physically demanding, but it was mind-numbingly tedious.  I was paired with an elderly man, and we were responsible for the cooker machines - huge cylinders into which a conveyor belt brought a steady stream of filled cans, the contents of which got cooked as the can moved through the machine.

The first part of the job was to grease the equipment.  I learned how to fill a grease gun and where all the nipples were on all the cookers; that was simple but sweaty work in the summertime leaning over and reaching under hot steel.

The other part of the job was to watch the conveyor belt for defective cans.  Corn and peas arrived at the plant and went by conveyor to the upper floor where they were husked or shelled and distributed into cans.  The last step involved stamping a lid onto the can.  If something went wrong, the can (or a series of them) would wrinkle or crumple.  If one of those cans entered the cooking machine, it could jam. 

So the old man and I spent 4-12 hours per day looking at the conveyor belt.  If a bent can appeared, you had to run across the plant floor and up a ladder and grab the can and throw it out onto the floor.  I was impressed by how agile this elderly (tho probably younger than I am now) man was in that regard.

But if there were no problems, you stared at that line of moving cans constantly.  I used that time to compose a Broadway musical in my head broadly based on the recently-popular "Oliver."  And the endless tedium was a not-really-necessary stimulus to me to apply myself in my college courses to seek a different career.

In the years that followed I occasionally looked back at my pay stubs from that summer job ($583 for two months = $1.36 per hour) as a pittance, but yesterday I punched the numbers into an inflation calculator: $1.36 per hour in 1965 was equivalent to $11.13 per hour in 2020.  So... not inappropriate for an entry-level nonskilled job.

Curiously, 50 years later I was at a neighborhood party here in Madison and met a neighbor who told me that she had also worked at the LeSueur Green Giant plant in the summer.  Readers with equivalent experiences are welcome to offer comments.


  1. "Even better is to pick it yourself in the field and run (don't walk) with it to the kitchen where you have the water already boiling..."

    This gave me a chuckle. My late mother, who grew up on a farm in Ohio in the nineteen-teens, described the celebratory cornfests they used to have exactly this way: the hired men (as she called them) would go pick the corn, then run to where huge cauldrons of water were boiling on fires in the yard, shuck the ears, and dump them in. Everybody else--families gathered from around the area--sat at long trestle tables under the trees, ready to dig in when the platters of steaming corn were passed.

    And that was all there was to eat, nothing but corn (and home-churned butter, natch). Maybe some homemade ice cream for dessert.

    I like very young white corn; the mixed white-and-yellow kernels are too sweet for me. I cut off the tassels and pull off the loose outer leaves and microwave the ears, in their inner leaves, on High for about two minutes, max. Most people, in my experience, way overcook it.

    Of course, I don't have hired men running to bring me the corn fresh from the field, but what I get at the farmer's market and cook as soon as I can get it home is awfully durn good.

  2. I grew a small patch of corn this year for the first time in a long time.
    I only got a few good ears, but they were delicious.
    Next year we are going to grow a lot more.

  3. Yum. Fresh, local sugar & gold corn!

  4. Last summer I had an opportunity to pick corn for the first time. At the farmer's suggestion, we ate a few ears RAW as we stood in the field. Not only did I not know that you could eat raw corn, but this stuff (I believe the variety was Bodacious Corn) was so good, putting butter on it was nearly sacrilege....

  5. I second the eating of raw corn in the field... strip the husk and silk from the ear prior to separating it from the stalk. Eat immediately. AKA "raccoon style" corn.

  6. i do not have access to as fresh a corn as you guys. i tend to overcook mine, but then i like to eat it with some good bbq or steak sauce on it: the sweetness of the corn against the tartness of the sauce!


  7. Thanks for sharing your reminiscences!

    Different era and far from equivalent, but when I was in high school 25 years ago - I worked at an automotive parts manufacturer in Guelph, Ontario on the injection molding line. Myself and 2 other gentlemen walked in a circle, prising freshly painted bumpers off one line, and placing them on another. Our fourth would place trays on each carrier of the second line to receive the bumpers which elevated to be moved to the finishing area.

    I still have some detroitite from those summers. One day I hit one of the carriers with my head as it elevated, causing it to twist sideways and catch on adjacent equipment - knocking several carriers and products to the ground, and causing a brief shutdown of the area. They called me "too-tall" for a while.

    I made $10 an hour which was significantly higher than minimum wage at the time (~$7.50) and equivalent to ~$15.50 today (all wages in CAD).

    Thanks again!

  8. Your story brought back memories of one shared by my now deceased uncle. In the 1940s, he turned 16 and was able to get a job at a factory. Born and reared into great poverty in southeast Tennessee, he dropped out of school and took a job at the enamel plant, where they made the fins for bombs (it was during WWII).

    His first paycheck was for $11.88. On the way home at the midnight hour, the person he carpooled with took him by the ice plant where he obtained a block of ice. When he got home, the entire family got out of bed in order to celebrate by making homemade ice cream.

    They had been so poor, that they didn't hardly know how to spend that $11.88. In any case, the next day, my grandmother headed to town and brought back a big batch of bananas. Working her magic, she made up a large dishpan of banana pudding (she would later become known for just how good she could make it).

    My uncle used to say, "If anyone ever tells you that banana pudding is bad for you, you tell them it's not true! 'Cause if it was, it would have wiped out our clan long ago!"

    It was their first tenuous step out of the grinding poverty of sharecropping and the such in southeast Tennessee. My uncle would go on to become an electrician, then the state electrical inspector, and later the "professor" of teaching a vocational course in electrical wiring at the local college. In all of this, he drove a school bus (he owned them; the country paid him to drive them, etc.), farmed, and as often as possible, headed out into the mountains or on any backroad he could find.

  9. I heard of one "recipe" that, like you, called for fresh corn to be thrown into water, then, AS SOON AS THE WATER STARTED TO BOIL, pull it out and eat it. Apparently, that was all that was needed (of course, it had that infinite amount of time between being placed in the water and the water actually starting to boil).

  10. My uncle briefly had a job at a chicken processing plant. He was probably 15 or 16 at the time and skinny as a rail. His job was to take the live chickens from the crate and hang them by their feet on the conveyor. The man next to him wielded a large knife that he used to dispatch the chickens in the usual manner. Uncle Jack went home for lunch, his arms heavily scratched from the chickens, and covered in blood from the adjacent operation. The way I heard the story, he did not return after lunch.

  11. In 1970, aged 16, in deepest rural England [albeit 30 mi from London] I got a Christmas job on the local farm riddling and bagging a warehouse full of potatoes into ½cwt paper sacks. It needed three people shoveller/loader; sorter/picker; bagger. The first week I got £6, the 2nd week £6 and a bag of spuds. I must have been pulling my weight because the final week I got £7. If you put £6 into an inflation-calculator then that wage was really exploitative but I was really happy to get it. A bag of spuds retailed at £0.50. The hindsight extraordinary thing is that mixed 100 ac / 40 hectares farm supported the Gaffer and two Hands, = 8 people. It wouldn't support payments on the £150,0000 tractor nowadays. Britain didn't get a Minimum Wage until 1999!

    1. I had to look up "riddle" used as a verb: "To put something through a riddle or sieve, to sieve, to sift."

      Etymology almost direct from Middle English. In this context "sorting by size."

  12. Great story. I've been through Le Sueur many times up and down the Minnesota River Valley and there is nothing like seeing the Jolly Green Giant sign at the top of the hill on 169 just before you head down the bluff to the river crossing. Did anyone look up the French translation for Le Sueur. I think it applies perfectly to a summer job!


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