Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

I hope you’ll bear with me to the end of this post – it’s kind of long.  In fact, it’s probably two posts in one; but, they’re two posts that really do have something in common, so I ask for your patience as I tie together the loose ends.  It’s all about making and sharing memories with family.  And corn.  Lots and lots of corn.

Back at the beginning of July, our family set off on a National Lampoon-style, semi-cross-country road trip.  For years, my mom has been talking about looking at some acreage in Wyoming, and this summer we decided to do something about it.  We rented a fancy space-age mini-van and loaded it up for a seven-day, nine-state, 3200-mile round trip tour.  With two small children in tow, that is no small feat.

And it really was a road trip in the truest sense – we spent at least seven hours (and sometimes as many as 11) every day driving, and spent no more than one night in any one place.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I have to admit that it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

Armed with a myriad of DVDs for the kids, and satellite radio for the adults we set off down the road.  We were subjected to multiple viewings of Cars 2 and Dora the Explorer’s Hic-Boom-Ohhh episode.  When it was “mom’s turn” we listened to the Sirius Bluegrass station as a respite.  To keep the kids occupied while the DVD player was “resting”, we had them look for Dora’s yellow valley and quiet forest.  With miles and miles of corn fields to look at, that yellow valley wasn’t too hard to find.

On the first night on our way out to Wyoming, we stopped in St. Louis.  We ate at a local wood-fired pizza joint called Twin Oak, where we enjoyed some tasty pies and local brews.

Stingray touch pool at the St. Louis Zoo

The next morning we took the boys to the St. Louis Zoo for a couple of hours before hitting the road. We tried to do at least one fun, kid-friendly thing every day.  It cut down on the monotony of the car ride, and it let the boys get some energy out of their systems before being cooped up for hours on end.  It was a pretty good strategy.

Lincon, NE Train Depot

Our second night was spent in Lincoln, NE, where we ate at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket District.  The food was good, the beer, brewed right next door, was excellent and the service was impeccable.  The boys enjoyed getting to run around the old train depot after dinner, and we even found a little local ice cream shop for dessert.

Steam-powered carousel at the Pioneer Village

The next morning, on our way to Cheyenne, WY, we stopped at a place called Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, NE.  It’s a little off the beaten path (like you feel like you’re driving through about a million miles of GMO corn and cattle feed lots to get there), but it was completely worth the detour.  From cars to trains to airplanes to tractors to boats, there was something of interest for everyone.  I think the adults liked this one as much as the kids (if not more).

In Cheyenne, we watched some gunslingers shoot it out and ate a place called The Albany Restaurant and Bar which was recommended by a woman at the Cheyenne Train Depot.

The next morning it was on to Laramie, WY to look at some land (and lots and lots of wild horses and Pronghorn).  In Laramie we had lunch at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery where I had a perfectly cooked Filet Mignon and a spicy Mexican Chili Ale.

After Laramie, it was time to head back east.  We took a slightly different route home, driving through Colorado and Kansas (surrounded by purple mountains and amber waves of wheat, not to mention gigantic wind farms) on the return trip.  It was July 4th, and we stopped in Burlington, CO for lunch.  There, we had a chance to take a ride on the Historic Kit Carson Co. Carousel.  Yes, that’s actually a picture of me up there.

We spent the night of the 4th in Topeka, KS, where the highlight of our stay was getting to watch fireworks from our 4th-floor hotel room with the lights off.

The 5th was spent driving the rest of the way through Kansas, all of Missouri, and portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.  We stopped off at a Civil War Battlefield in Lexington, MO, and wound up spending the night in Clarkesville, TN (which just happens to be conveniently located close to another Civil War battle sight, much to my husband’s delight).

In Clarkesville we ate at a little hole-in-the-wall place called Brunies Bar and Grill.  When we first walked in we were a little reluctant (the atmosphere is definitely of the college dive bar variety), but the live music and the fact that we were hungry and it was late sold us.  They specialized in German food, so we opted for the bratwurst and schnitzel sandwiches (at the server’s suggestion) and the German potato salad.  We were pleasantly surprised by the food, and the music was really good – a win all around.

On the morning of the day we headed home, we took a little detour to visit Fort Donelson, significant because it was the site of the first Union victory in the South.  My husband is a big American Civil War history buff, so these last two days were sort of devoted to him.  The kids really enjoyed getting to see the big cannons, and my mom and I just liked being outside with the family (despite the 100+ degree temperatures).

____________________________________________________

As vacations go, it will go down in my book as one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  Not only was it fun to spend time with my family experiencing things and places that were new for all of us; it was also fascinating to see our country’s industrial agriculture system at work.  I’ve never seen so much corn and soy growing in my life.  We even joked a couple of times about stopping off and pulling a couple of ears of corn to have with dinner when we got to our evening destination.

Of course, when you see things like this along the way, you realize that most of that corn is probably not destined for our dinner table – at least not in the traditional sense.  Most likely, the corn we saw growing is more of a commodity crop, slated to be turned into livestock feed, fuel, or sweetener and filler for the processed food industry.  We might have been sorely disappointed had we actually stopped and picked a couple of ears for dinner.  For more information on corn as a commodity crop, I suggest watching King Corn – it’s a relatively unbiased and eye opening look at “Americas most-productive, most-subsidized grain.”

After seeing all that corn in the heartland, I had a hankering for some good ol’ creamed corn when I got home.  Our sad little row of corn in our backyard garden had about given up the ghost after a week of record temperatures and little rain, but I managed to salvage a few poorly developed ears to add to the mix.  The rest came from our local Saturday-morning Farmers Market.

The recipe is my paternal Grandmother’s, and it came to me by way of my dad’s sisters.  My mom and I had been talking a while back about how much we loved Grandma Helen’s creamed corn, and wondering how we could replicate it.  The thing that made it special was the combination of  lots of black pepper and the fact that it wasn’t at all sweet.  I decided to email my Aunt to see if she had the recipe.  Here’s her response:

Of all the people to ask – the one who can’t boil water.  I can see her making it now.  My memory of her at the stove stirring.  She did it on top of the stove in that big cast iron skillet, think she started out with a small amount of water and then made a thickening with milk and flour.  I remember pepper, almost a stick of butter and when she got it to the consistency she wanted, put it in the oven and baked it until done.  Seems like it had to bake for quite a while because all the liquid had to cook down.  Remember her stirring it while in the oven, trying to keep it from sticking too much.  My job was to clean that nasty skillet. I will send your message to N {my other aunt}.  Since she and M {my cousin} love to do corn for their holiday meals, she might remember more.  I really don’t think it was written down anywhere – just something she learned.

My other Aunt’s response followed soon after:

Ok..am trying to send this from wee phone at home…I do have a recipe written that says mama’ s cream corn! It calls for 8 to 10 ears. Two tablespoons flour…less if young…stir in 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, 1 stick butter and salt, pepper to taste….cook about one hour at 325…..with your directions Niki will do it! That lil girl is a Real chef. I didn’t write the steps but just having ingredients helps…Off to babysit…love u.

First, it cracks me up that they still think of me as a “lil girl”.  Second, I love the fact that we can collaborate and share family recipes via the internet.  Passing these things on and keeping them alive is so important to me.  None of us live close to each other, so the idea that we can just hop on the computer and pass this knowledge on to one another is amazing. It certainly doesn’t replace standing next to each other at the stove, but it ranks a close second.

And now I get to share it with all of you.

Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 1 hour

yield: 8 servings

  • 8-10 ears corn (preferably a less-sweet heirloom variety)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour (less if the corn is young)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste (lots of black pepper)
  1. Preheat oven to 325F
  2. Begin by cutting the corn off the cob and scraping the cob to get all the milky liquid and starch
  3. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron, but I used a stainless steel one because it was the only one I had that was big enough), melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook flour for a couple of minutes, just to make sure it doesn’t taste of raw flour.
  4. Add the corn and stir to coat with the butter/flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk and water.
  6. Add the salt and pepper (I added about a teaspoon of salt, and 30-40 turns of my pepper grinder)
  7. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken.
  8. Place in your preheated oven and let cook for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure it’s not sticking.
  9. Enjoy!
 
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Categories: sides, southern food

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5 Comments on “Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn”

  1. 16 July 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Beautimus! That reminds me of the 500 miles before dark ,neverending vacations we took as a family…. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

    As a deep Southerner, I’ve never been able to stomach creamed corn… it’s just too sweet for my “delicate southern constitution”… your aunt’s version looks like a north / south hybrid. The silver queen will be pouring in later this month up here.. I may set aside some to try out!
    Cheers!

  2. Nancy K Kemp
    16 July 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I feel like I was vacationing along with you and the family (How I envy your mom getting to travel with those two little fellows… and you & D of course!) Thank you, thank you for sharing a treasured family recipe and especially for the “ride along” on your summer journey!

  3. 16 July 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Beautiful post! Road trips are important. I still remember the family trip we took out West when I was 10. We were piled into a Chevy Celebrity fighting the entire way, but we survived and made so many wonderful memories. Must subject my boys to one soon! And I will definitely have to try the creamed corn. It seems similar to how my family made it — no extra sugar needed. I love to eat it with fried okra and a wedge of tomato. Yum!

  4. 16 July 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    What a lovely trip you had! My grandmother made her corn much the same way, though without the oven step. Like you, I prefer the less sweet varieties that actually taste like corn instead of like sugar. I think we are probably in the minority, though.

  5. Tony
    14 September 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Thanks for the recipe. I am cooking it tonight in one of mom’s old cast iron skillets. I have two of her skillets that she and dad bought when they first got married. You are welcome to one of them if you would like.

    Love you, Dad

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