After a while in Peoria County, you know where just about everything
is. One reason is that most of what you see during the spring, summer
and fall is exactly two things: corn and soybeans.
In the summer, the corn walls in the blacktop. You kid yourself that
this grassy monoculture is at least a windblock, but in fact the wind
itself has paused for a brief moment, leaving the corn to take the
credit. In the winter when these crops are absent, your focus goes to
the horizon, the baseline for distant clouds and proof, should such
proof be necessary, that the earth is not flat or, at the very least,
that the sky bends.
You see the occasional fields of pumpkin. (In the fall, most of the
pumpkin is trucked to Libby’s plant across the river in Morton. The
trailers, parked on one of the world’s largest seesaws, point to the
sky just long enough to allow all the pumpkins to roll out the back.)
You see trees that signal a house or a church or the place where a
house or church once was. You see the Rock Island Trail, boxed in by
two narrow lines of trees that grew up with the railroad and now
replenish themselves among the company of walkers, runners and
bicyclists. From the road, the Rock Island is a green border that
divides nothing from nothing, corn and soybeans being so dominant as
to be no more remarkable than bits of sand on an endless beach.
The corn in these fields isn’t really food, at least not directly.
What doesn’t get fed to cattle gets turned into ethanol; it used to be
fairly common to refer to the crop as “pig corn.” The only reason to
call it pig corn instead of just plain ol’ corn is simple: For a
precious few days each year, no more than a couple of weeks at most,
sweet corn takes center stage.
You look for the signs. You see the first sign as you cross Route 91,
coming back from breakfast at Henry’s Diner in Princeville. The sign
is generic: SWEET CORN and an arrow. But that is all that is
necessary; in fact, including the arrow is a bit of artistic overkill
because you knew where the sweet corn was; all you needed to know was
when the sweet corn was.
The paint and the plywood, the hinge at the top and the letterforms
signify this crop is The Real Deal, not grocery store corn shipped and
stocked by people who believe you can trap and transport the summers
of past, present and future as easily as undersized boxes of cereal.
Grocery store corn requires high ceilings, bright lights and
advertising budgets. The Real Deal requires little more than a cart
and a card table. And a few more signs.
In front of the house, you see the first sign to promote the brand:
EHNLE KIDS’ SWEET CORN. Again, unnecessary information. You know who
the Ehnle Kids are. You’ve been here many times before and, given the
limits of the season, you’re a little worried that the Kids already
have too many signs. After all, what if Other People learn about this
place? The Kids are liable to sell to anyone.
Around back, a large shade tree. Underneath: sweet corn piled in a
cart. One of the Ehnle Kids is there—and his mother, with a bucket of
corn that she adds to the pile. You learn that the Kids have already
picked the entire patch. This is way earlier than ever before thanks
to drought conditions. They hand watered the plants to make up for the
lack of rainfall. (They also planted a small section of sweet corn
after than the main crop, so there’s a chance that they might reopen
for a couple of days to sell the late ears.)
Another well-made but ultimately useless sign crowns the card table:
$3/DOZEN. This is sweet corn, people: we’ll pay whatever it takes. The
specific price is of academic interest at best, and I don’t see
anybody wearing a cap and gown.
One more sign is stored off to the side, because an Ehnle Kids
sales representative is present: HONOR SYSTEM Today (this is where the
Kids’ heretofore rigid adherence to uppercase letterforms breaks
down). This is the sign that makes ridiculous all grocery store
checkout lane technology. Whereas the store is always looking for ways
to reduce its costs—U Check It Yourself if you’re ready to become part
of the store’s unpaid labor force—the Ehnle Kids remove duplicative
labor and technology concerns from the equation entirely. If no one’s
home, you take your corn and leave your money on the card table.
At $3/DOZEN, it really is the best buying experience in Peoria County.