News & Opinion » Gut instincts

Hands of The Corn Man

Adam Wilcox

Often, food writing amounts to an absurd quest, like the search for the perfect noodles in the film Tampopo. I've gone on missions for ribs, breads, chicken wings, and, at the height of growing season, I sought the Corn Man. Plenty of local farmers grow corn, but sources pointed to 1092 Penfield Road, the location of Gentle's Farm Market. With a name like that, who could resist?

            One source sent me to try a variety called Silver Queen. When I arrived, there were two large bins of Confection, but only about 15 ears of the blessed Silver Queen. While I slowly examined them, a woman came over, hip-checked me, and dove in like a zoo animal at feeding time. Even with a head start, I got only eight ears.

            A few days later, I went out on the first morning picking, and met The Corn Man, Robert Gentle. His grandfather, Tobias, established the farm in the late 19th century. Robert took over from his father, Thomas, in 1964. At first, The Corn Man said he was too busy to talk. When asked when might be more convenient, he responded, "How about November?"

            My father, a retired philosophy professor, recently talked about shaking hands with a construction worker. It was, he said, as if these were the hands of different species. Farmers' hands are like this, and farmers are another breed entirely. When there's work to be done, chit-chat can't be abided. One of Gentle's workers, Jeremy Richardson, took me aside and said Mr. Gentle would come around, and finally, he did. Busy and not a little shy, Robert Gentle turned out to be very friendly and interesting.

            At the Gentle farm, Gentle plants corn from mid-April until mid-July. Their earliest variety is Native Gem, available from mid-July until early August. Then come the "super sweets," which is a category of varieties bred for, you guessed it, their sweetness. Gentle's primary super sweets are Confection and Candy Corner. Both are sweet, but because the Candy Corner is more resistant to rust, it can be grown larger, and later in the season (until October 1).

            The drawback of super sweets is relatively tough kernels. Gentle tries new varieties all the time, this year one called Extra Tender. He had me try an ear right off the stalk and I was shocked how good and, yep, tender it was. The batch my family had this week was one of the best we've ever had. All Gentle's seed comes from Harris, and though he hasn't grown any genetically modified corn yet --- the question seemed a bit silly to him, in fact --- he said he would try it if Harris recommended it.

            That Silver Queen I fought for was extremely tender with tiny kernels, but it wasn't as sweet as the other varieties. Gentle told me it was a bit young (there is more available now). Silver Queen is delicate, and can't be allowed to grow too large (it gets mushy and starchy). Its fans are rabid.

            Though Gentle grows sweet corn exclusively, there are many commercial types of corn, with roughly 60 percent used as animal feed. There are varieties grown for starch, oil content, and for amino acids important in swine diets (lysine and tryptophane). Popcorn, by the way, works because it contains a tiny drop of water and a hard kernel. When the water heats up, it builds pressure against the outside until it bursts, turning the kernel inside out.

            Every ear you buy at Gentle's was hand-picked by The Corn Man. In Gentle's second field (off Atlantic Avenue) Corey Kummerow held the baskets and ran them to and from the truck, but Gentle picked every ear. If there are any signs of imperfection --- small ears, dry tips, holes from pests --- he throws them on the ground. This year has been dry, and that means more dry tips (he can tell this without opening the ears). With the cost of water, he's had to charge slightly more this year (33 cents per ear).

            All tolled, Gentle has 65 acres. He owns 10 and rents another 20 by the farm market, and also rents the 35 acres at the Atlantic Avenue field. It's a tough business. The weather can be friend or foe, but there are plenty of other obstacles: a spectacular-looking fungus called smut, red-wing blackbirds, raccoons, and the European corn borer can all ruin ears. Gentle fights the blackbirds with inflatable scarecrows, raccoons with traps, and insects with insecticides. Early in the season, deer can eat the tops off stalks, meaning the plants can't fertilize themselves, which means no corn at all.

            Robert Gentle moves quickly but not haphazardly though the corn rows, at one point slashing one of his amazing hands. Picking 80 dozen ears, three times a day, seven days a week, 11 weeks this year, those hands will pick about 220,000 ears of corn. It's no wonder they're gnarled, red, and scarred. Think about those hands the next time you bite into a sweet, juicy ear.

Gentle's Farm Market, 1092 Penfield Road, 586-2506. Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Food tip

Turning swords into plowshares (at least in words) is a new restaurant --- The Atomic Eggplant. With both Slice of Life and Savory Thyme closing recently, perhaps "The Egg" can fill the vegetarian void. It opened August 6 in the old City Grill location, 75 Marshall Street (behind The Olive Tree). Chef-owner Meg Davis serves primarily vegan dishes from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Where else can you find spinach burgers, barbecued tofu, and carrot-celery juice? And there's a large outdoor patio in back. With the Abundance Natural Foods Market on the same block, it makes an excellent combination.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at