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Serious corn

07/19/07 12:00AM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) It's corn season, and commentator Philip Baruth has been remembering a late-night corn-eating contest from long ago.

(BARUTH) When I was about fifteen years old, my parents split up. Boom. Just like that. At that time I was the only kid I knew who was living through a divorce, which is to say there weren't a lot of well-understood rules of conduct. Which is also to say that I handled it about as poorly as is humanly possible.

About a year after the split, my mother began to date a man named Denny Fountain, a man she would eventually marry and to whom she is still very happily married now, almost thirty years later. But at the time, I was convinced Denny was a snake in the grass, and I set out to protect my mother by making her feel as guilty as possible about seeing him in the first place.

In spite of my best efforts, they were married within a few years, and then things changed even more radically: my mother sold the house I grew up in, and when I came home from college, it was understood that I'd stay with her and Denny in their new place. Denny was unlike my father: he was a big man with a booming voice and a Kenny Rogers beard, retired after twenty years as a flight mechanic in the US Air Force. I walked around their house on edge, and I stayed out late with my friends, until four in the morning sometimes.

One of those nights, I came dragging in after the bars closed. The house was dark, but there was a light on in the kitchen. And there was Denny, putting a big silver pot on the stove.

He shied a hand at me. "Yeah, I know it's nuts. But I couldn't sleep and I'm making some corn," he said.

And it was nuts, I thought, even though no one loves corn as much as I do, and, in fact, I was a little hungry now that I thought about it.

Denny saw the hesitation. "I can throw in an ear for you too, while I'm at it," he offered.

I thought about it, and finally nodded. Denny nodded back, and then looked up again. "How many ears can you eat?"

I sat down at the table, under the bright overhead lamp. To anyone else it would have been a simple informational question. But I managed to throw it back at him: "How many can you eat?"

Denny gave me a look. He wiped his forehead with a towel - it was a hot night - and then he said, "Well, there's fourteen ears in the bag, and I can probably eat six or seven, if it come right down to it."

"Then I'll have seven," I told him.

Denny shook his head and laughed a bit to himself, but he went ahead and boiled fourteen ears of corn, and starting at a little after three in the morning, we began to eat them. And because we were about to eat some serious corn, we dispensed with knives altogether and just rolled the ears directly across the top of a fresh stick of butter. It was butter and sugar corn, I remember, the yellow and white variety, and the first four ears were absolutely delicious. The last three went down harder and harder, but Denny was still eating, and I would have sooner died than stop before he stopped.

I date our friendship of nearly thirty years from the moment we both sat back from the table, sweat beaded on our faces. If you know anything about the serious eating of July corn, you know that it is impossible to eat that much for that long that late at night without reconciling.

Because the thing is, with fourteen ragged cobs stacked in a pyramid in the center of the table, there's really no room left for pride.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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