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Thursday, July 10, 2003 02:20 pm

How sweet it is

Illinois corn festivals honor the golden grain

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Michigan celebrates cherries. Wisconsin loves cheese. In Illinois, it's all about corn.

Next week 11,000 ears of corn will be consumed during the 30th annual Chatham Sweet Corn Festival, which runs July 17 through 19. The event, held in Community Park on Main Street, is a fund-raiser for the Chatham Jaycees manned by about 200 volunteers. The corn is shucked and then boiled in 300-gallon cauldrons of sugar water, before being slathered in butter and served. The entertainment includes a chilli cook-off, helicopter rides, arts and crafts, a Tour de Corn bicycle rally, a Corn-A-Pult competition, and even the Illinois Championship Cow Chip Throw. And while the festival sells other food, such as pork chops and ribeye sandwiches, the main attraction remains the corn.

"It's available, it's big around here, and it's a fun thing to do," says fest co-chair John Moore.

Of course, Chatham isn't the only Illinois community that loves corn. Other upcoming festivals include: the 56th annual Sweet Corn Festival in Mendota (August 7 through 10), where an estimated 60,000 visitors will chomp on nearly 50 tons of free Del Monte sweet corn and take in a crafts and flea market, a parade, and a carnival; the 28th annual Sweet Corn Festival in downtown Urbana (August 22 and 23); and the country's largest and oldest festival, the National Sweet Corn Festival in Hoopeston (August 28 through 31). The Hoopeston fest was created in 1941, following the success of the original festival started in 1938 by local businessmen. For 60 years, the National Sweet Corn Festival has attracted tens of thousands of visitors to a truly unique event, featuring a carnival, a parade, a Monster Truck show, and one of the state's largest demolition derbies. Tons of sweet corn are cooked with the help of an antique steam engine and distributed free.

All ears

Simple ways to prepare our state's coveted crop:

Boil: Bring a large pot of water to a vigorous boil over high heat. (Don't add salt; it toughens the corn.) Cook in batches, shucked and with the silk removed, adding a few ears at a time so the water continues boiling. For fresh young corn, cook only 30 seconds--just long enough to heat the corn through; boil more mature corn for up to 3 minutes.

Oven roast: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Peel back corn husks, leaving them attached at the base of the ear. Remove and discard silk. Smear with softened butter, then rewrap with husks. Pile corn in a roasting pan, covering loosely with aluminum foil, and roast for 8 to 10 minutes.

Grill: Soak corn in husks in cold water for a few hours before grilling. (This step lets the corn steam as it grills and makes it moister, but it's not necessary.) Let a bed of coals burn down until glowing and covered with ash. Place corn on grill and cook, turning several times with long-handled tongs. Cook shucked corn for 3 to 4 minutes, corn in husks for 6 to 8 minutes.

Microwave: Individually wrap one or two ears of husked corn in waxed paper or place several ears in a covered dish with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. Cook wrapped corn 3 to 6 minutes; in a dish, 5 to 7 minutes.

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