The rich, savory Corn Festival chowder served in steaming $3.25 Styrofoam cupfuls by Eden United Methodist Church volunteers is enough to make a formidable security guard wax poetic about its “melange” of flavors.
“It’s a comfort food in its most basic form. Soft, creamy and delicate,” said Kevin Salzman, manning his post at the Legion Drive fair entrance in a black T-shirt and dark sunglasses. “I never liked corn chowder until I started working at the festival.”
This year a line of regulars will bring empty quart jars to take home the church’s secret recipe developed by late parishioner Pearl Smith. Forget about asking about spices and proportions. But the ingredients include whole milk, cream of mushroom soup, bell pepper, onion, garlic, bacon and canned corn.
Yes, corn from a can. Not a single kernel from this season’s especially sweet rain-infused crop of Eden-grown corn goes into the wildly popular chowder.
“To do good corn chowder, you don’t want to use fresh corn,” said chowder stand organizer Peter Zopp. “It gets soggy.”
It’s also a lot faster to open cans, he said, than it is to slice corn from cobs, one by one. Zopp takes off a week from his job as a lighting salesman to help lead the volunteer crew divvy up and bake 30 pounds of bacon, mix a dozen five-gallon buckets of soup base and fix ancillary items, like the Italian sausages served with onions and peppers, a featured Eden-grown ingredient at the chowder stand.
Shiny green ones beckoned from boxes around the work table at the festival prep room, where two volunteers chopped onions for coleslaw and observed happily that these weren’t the kind that made them cry.
Hanging out like this, said Sue Roseman, is the best part of working the stand that still hinges on Pearl Smith’s pink index card recipe for chowder.
“We’re the secret club,” Roseman said.
Zopp looks forward to the moment every year when he and another organizer open a beer and pour a sip onto the ground. It’s the annual drink they give to their predecessor, Mel Van Note, who made them promise to take over before he died about a decade ago. “Take care of this, boys,” he said.
People tell Zopp the soup, precisely heated to 170 degrees, is the reason they return to the festival every summer. He can still think of the man in his 70s who said, “This is why I come here.”
“I’ve been told that multiple times,” Zopp said. “That’s pretty exciting. … That makes you feel good.”
In the 51 years since Methodists helped found the festival celebration of the local corn crop, its chowder tent grew into a full-fledged stand with picnic tables, walk-in cooler, water tank and kitchen.
The simple white chowder building with a flat roof built by Eagle Scouts is dwarfed by the eccentric mix of corn and non-corn-related things at the Eden Corn Festival, which started Thursday.
Around the Legion Drive grounds by the American Legion post and the high school, there’s a tent tribute to Eden farming history, a neon-streaked midway of Ferris wheels, twisting rides, carnival games, baseball, a craft show and stages set for a corn queen pageant and a “battle” of local bands, and contests for corn husking and corn eating.
Events, listed at http://edencornfest.com, continue today, from horseshoe contest registration at 11 a.m. to an 8 p.m. Beatlemania concert by a cast that flew in from Los Angeles. Sunday’s schedule runs from the 8 a.m. car show registration to the noon Corn Parade on Route 62, a 5 p.m. corn bread and corn chowder contest and a closing concert at 6 p.m. by West of the Mark band.
When it comes to selling corn, festival territories are defined. The police club raises scholarship money by selling uncooked corn to take home. The volunteer fire department has exclusive rights to steam and butter some 40,000 ears.
The Eden Valley Growers’ Association estimates 60,000 ears are sold at the festival and nearby farm stands during the weekend.
“A lot of corn walks out of there,” said Gary Balone, general manager. “It does perk up sales.”
And canned corn – dismissed by Balone as non-Eden corn packed by “some processor somewhere” – will keep its starring role in the Methodists’ chowder.
“Since Pearl made it that way, we’re not changing,” said Zopp. “It keeps people coming back.”