Back in the 1970s, my babysitter wore a T-shirt with the slogan “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.” I don’t remember if her shirt was pastel (probably) or emblazoned with glittery lettering and a butterfly (most likely), but I have never forgotten the sentiment. I didn’t think that the pop-psychology chestnut, though, would best apply in my lifetime to a Thanksgiving side dish.
Last November, my family finally 86-ed the dish that had been on Achenbach Thanksgiving tables for five generations: Amish Baked Corn. It has corn (kind of) and is it served with a spoon, but that’s as close to corn pudding as it gets. And like most things my family does, it requires a great deal of forethought and preparation but can be ruined irrevocably at the last minute.
The dish is part of my family’s Central Pennsylvania culinary heritage. My great-grandmother Bessie, a withered wisp of a thing with hip-length gray hair braided and tied in buns at the side of her head decades before Princess Leia made it chic, didn’t speak English or German. She spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. While many non-Amish families in the area, mine included, no longer speak the German dialect, we sure as Hӧlle eat Dutch (Deutsch) food: pickled eggs, pork and sauerkraut, chicken corn soup, Lebanon bologna, sauerbraten, scrapple (a personal favorite) and Amish Baked Corn.
Despite its few ingredients, Amish Baked Corn is not a simple dish. Back in the pre-Amazon ordering days, making it in Maryland required road tripping. You could only purchase its key ingredient — a box of John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn — across the Pennsylvania line. My mother typically arrived at my house the day before Turkey Day with the box, and she oversaw the soaking of the toasted, dried sweet corn kernels (think edible yellow teeth) in hot milk to reconstitute the corn. Add eggs, sugar and butter, and bake it until the color resembles a deep yellow and it’s the consistency of porous brick. Our version was usually a tad underdone in the center with burnt edges. (First on my lottery wish list is a double oven.)
My mother and I debated for a few weeks whether to include Amish Baked Corn on last year’s menu, but the reality was that it had long been just for show. We served the dish because we always had. Since taking over the Thanksgiving duties for my family in the early-1990s, I have expanded our menu by choice and necessity. We now have grilled and traditionally prepared turkey, dairy-free, gluten-free and vegetarian entrée options, and two kinds of cranberry sauce (homemade and my husband’s “hockey pucks,” which is canned sauce cut to resemble sports equipment and lined carefully on his late grandmother’s cut-glass olive dish).
My in-laws have corn issues and my brother, sister and nephew can’t handle the dairy in the dish. Others at the table dubbed it “colon cleanse.” (Back to my babysitter’s t-shirt: If something comes back up on you, is it still yours forever?) My sons, blessed with their mother’s mouth, have their father’s stomach. I still nibbled at my serving, but it was more for the memories.
Of note to my adopted state of Maryland, there is no sauerkraut on my Thanksgiving menu, though it was a staple in my household. My dad ate it several times a week (sometimes cold and straight from the can) but never, ever on Thanksgiving. Ironically, his last meal should have been Thanksgiving in 1989, but he was too ill from liver cancer and had not eaten for weeks. He died that evening while I was putting away the three, complete (mostly uneaten) meals our neighbors had dropped off.
That’s part of the reason, certainly, why it was hard to part with Amish Baked Corn, a dish we only served at Thanksgiving. I imagine that most of what’s served on this holiday for most people is about memory and loss and the blessing of those who are no longer at the table. The corn dish was a link to my father, but the time had come to give it a rest.
We raised a glass last Thanksgiving to its passing, and if anyone missed its chunky, burnt yellow solidity, they didn’t mention it. We have newer traditions and memories now. When my youngest was a preschooler, his holiday meal consisted of a few green beans, a roll, several pats of butter and a plate of whipped cream (no pie). Eyeing his somewhat improved plate of non-artery-clogging choices now that he’s a tween always brings a laugh around the table. As does the melted glob of butter that was shaped like a turkey before it was placed on the table two hours too early. The balsamic pearl onions, which I introduced to my guests a few years ago, have become a counted-on favorite. And my sister recently asked me to resurrect a side dish I made with kumquats in the ’00s.
Soon, my mom will call to begin creating the shopping list for this year’s feast. I plan to ask her to bring the dried corn from Pennsylvania, not for just-in-case but for just-because. Amish Baked Corn may no longer have a place on our table, but I can make room for its main ingredient in my pantry. It should keep for a while. After all, it’s mine forever.
Amish Baked Corn
1 cup dried corn
3 beaten eggs
2 cup milk, hot
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Add hot milk to 1 cup of corn in a greased casserole dish and let stand for one hour. Add the rest of the ingredients and bake 45 minutes (or until golden brown) at 300 degrees.