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I was supposed to laugh: When flirtation crosses the line

Last week, my boyfriend Jon introduced me to an acquaintance. I had been seated at a restaurant during a Troegs event that Jon was hosting, but I quickly swiveled in my chair to extend my handshake. The man before me was over 60 and harmless with twinkly blue eyes and a long white goatee, and my hand touched his as Jon said, “And this is my girlfriend, Sylvia.”

“Not for long,” the man answered.

For a split second, confusion hovered in the air, but it was just long enough. Before I knew it, the man had snuggled his arm tightly around my shoulder as if to take me away.

His great, thundering laughter rang out as he removed his arm, and I found myself chuckling, just a bit. But when he stepped back, he eyed me up and down, and I looked away, doubly uncomfortable.

Later in the evening, the man approached our table to shake Jon’s hand and announce his departure, and he once again turned toward me.

“And you,” he said, pointing, “remember what I said.”

My instinct was again to laugh — a girly, flirtatious laugh — but there was nothing in his statement that I thought was funny.

“And you,” I said, “remember who I arrived with this evening.”

The man laughed again. “You might change your mind,” he said. “Who knows? Women always change their minds.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ve been with this one for a long time. I’ve made my choice.”

The man put up his arms in protest. “I’m just joking,” he said with a small whine, as if I wasn’t getting it. “It’s a compliment.”

“I know,” I said. “But I need you to know. I’ve. Made. My. Choice.”


Flirtation happens. It’s a fact. No matter where I’ve lived, there’s always been a handful of unexpected invitations that range from a stranger’s innocuous “You are gorgeous” to a “hey, baby, why not a smile?” as I streak past, red-faced and frizzy-haired on an afternoon run. The line between accepting a compliment as genuine and feeling threatened or misjudged by one is very thin, and the way I react in such a situation is even more complicated.

Usually, I answer with laughter. I think many women do. I’ve laughed when I’ve been propositioned in shady parts of France, laughed when I’ve been gestured over to a restaurant table to be handed a stranger’s honest compliment, laughed when a man announced the various things we’d do if he could take me to a nearby hotel. Laughter makes me feel pretty and inaccessible; laughter emphasizes my femininity, which I’m somehow glad someone else noticed; and laughter is, at times, just vague enough to cover up a response that I don’t even know how to think or say or give.

But why do I laugh if I don’t find a man’s words to be funny?

Because I’m female, I often feel that I am expected to accept a man’s words, even if the suggested actions the words represent are just that — harmless suggestions. If I am flirted with, whether comfortably or uncomfortably, it is most acceptable to accept the situation lightly and move on, no matter how positively or negatively it makes me feel.

Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh also knows this conflict of expectations well. Her street art project, “Stop Telling Women To Smile,” uses graffiti to affirm that women can and should stand up against words, words that, while not necessarily accompanied by physical assault, can be equally degrading. With captions like, “I’m not your baby,” she asserts that a woman has a right to set her own social boundaries, even if this is the right to refuse the so-called teasing or jokes of someone else.

In the situation above, the double standards were evident. I would never have told the man’s wife that I planned on stealing him, and it is highly unlikely that he would have made the statement if Jon had told him we were married.

But I am woman, and to be beautiful I was supposed to laugh. I felt it instinctively. The giggle had bubbled up my throat, and I had pushed it back down. But I refuse to laugh at words that symbolize a proposition that will not happen, even if the man never intended it to, and I refuse to allow someone else’s words to define me in a way that is contrary to the person I am.

All I had been trying to do was to even the playing field.

The morning I believed in time travel

Despite now studying French, I still have the honor of delving into my English-teacher roots by daily tutoring two boys via Skype in English language conversation in South Korea. Due to a guest post on my blog a few months ago, I already had a vague idea about celebrations of Buddha’s birthday (which just passed on May 17) and the traditional game of gonggi. I knew vaguely that South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvanian time, although I always forget and cheerfully say “Good morning!” to my two students, who giggle and reply with equal amusement, “Good evening!” I’ve met their parents and their non-English speaking grandmother, who has shown me traditional New Year’s clothing, has promised to buy me Korean ice cream if I visit, and blessed the kimchi that I am making this weekend. All of this is special, but not too shocking; in a virtual world, this is almost to be expected.

But the morning I believed in time travel was when the family pulled back the curtains in the computer room to show me the pitch-black night and the rows of well-lit apartment buildings that stand opposite theirs. “We live on the third floor,” one of the boys pointed out, and I nodded with understanding. (The writer of the blog post on South Korea had including a photo of apartment buildings.) But floating in the window, in the middle of the city lights, was the reflection of my Skyped face, glowing brightly from the computer screen — existing 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvania time and 7000 miles away.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

On countrysides and coming home

You’re a young adult (whatever age that means), and you’ve been told to “get out there.” See the world. Experience new things, and become a better person because of it.

I absolutely agree with this philosophy, for it was definitely applicable to me. Before going to college, I had only met a handful of people who had been born outside the U.S. I had never seen a bagel or eaten granola, and I laughed awkwardly at jokes that contained pop culture references I’d never heard of. Before studying in France, a glass of wine in my hand was evil, not a sign of sharing; before visiting my family in the Netherlands, I laughed at adults who rode their bike to work instead of driving a car. (Bike rides were for kids. Real adults owned four wheels.) In the decade since I’ve left my hometown, I have learned to ask questions about other people’s beliefs instead of recoiling in disgust when our opinions don’t match. I learned that humanity is more beautiful than I had thought. I learned that I have a place when I create one, and yes, that I am capable of drinking espresso, using chopsticks, and driving aggressively in heavy traffic, as I had once thought growing up should entail.

But there is another side to this story. On May 2, NPR interviewed comedian Jim Gaffigan about raising five kids in Manhattan. Of city-dwellers, he said, “They’re well-adjusted. They’re not freaked out by two men holding hands. They’re not freaked out by socio- or economic or cultural differences, and that’s, I think, an important gift to give children.” Gaffigan’s point jives with me, whose process of “growing up” and “getting out there” entailed directing my footsteps toward cities of various sizes. Cities expose you to others’ differences, whether you find them at the laundromat or sitting next to a stranger on a bus; cities present you with an array of experiences from the Peruvian restaurant down the street to the political rally of a cause you’ve never heard of. For me, cities around the world have succeeded in giving me the chance to broaden myself, to expect change, and to be unafraid of other people. Like Gaffigan, I’ve viewed living in cities to be a gift.

However, what Gaffigan is missing is an acknowledgement of the countryside and the importance of coming home.

Cities are not the only place in this world that have something to offer. Having come from a family farm in Shippensburg, PA, I assert that there’s something to be said about being “well-adjusted” to the depth of a truly black night sky. It’s extremely important to me to not be “freaked out” by spiders, of the smell of sweat, and the satisfaction of heavy labor. Exposure to others’ differences is a gift, but so is the ability to wave at your neighbors (I do this in Harrisburg, whether I know them or not), to run through cornfields, and to be embraced by the absolute sense of knowing where you’ve come from. For me, the countryside is an anchor to where I’m going, and this gift is not at all less than teaching children to not be startled by the sight of the homeless or of a hijab worn in a grocery store. The countryside, like the gift of a city, is a tool that must be used wisely.

Many of my friends, like me, have grown up in small towns, and have found ourselves at any given moment traveling or living across the state, across the country, or across the globe. Many twentysomethings have responded to the call of “getting out there,” whether to a city or not, and we’ve looked at our fresh perspectives and new stories with a certain sense of satisfaction. However, after these weeks, or months, or years away, there’s a point in time where many of us, with some awkwardness, find that we are back in the same town or state in which we started, and find this return viewed (by ourselves, if not others) as a backslide, a giving-in, a choice we are supposed to defend.

If I could change the call to our young people, I would first explain that it is important to get out of one’s comfort zone and to see other places. For those of us born among mountains and rolling fields, it may be important to spend some time in bigger places, but for many others, leaving comfort zones can mean camping for a weekend without showers, or learning to respect that truck-driving neighbor who never finished high school.

But after this experience, I’d explain to our young people that it’s okay to return home — with new perspectives, new distance, and new understanding. Returning home, if only temporarily — to re-find the place where your heart was, to where familiarity upholds, to where your new point of views can really make an impact — is just as much of a gift as being able to leave it.

Picking walnuts, 2008

Picking walnuts, 2008

Confessions of a caterer: 7 Things to remember when tipping your server

I have worked in the food service on and off since 2002, and tomorrow am returning to catering for the one hundredth time. The following article was first published on on February 27, 2010.


You are scraping up the last bits of dessert with your fork when the check arrives, and now it is time to whip out the credit card and calculate the tip. It’s a normal routine, an opportunity to voice your opinion on the quality of the food and the service, but for a woman in North Carolina, this routine became a legal issue. In February 2010, patron Monica Covington was banned from a Winston-Salem restaurant for having left poor tips.

We’re all guilty of it. Sometimes we don’t have enough ones, or sometimes we don’t have the energy to decide whether the meal was worth 15% or 18. Monica presented the restaurant with a petition of 300 signatures and demanded fair treatment, but her situation brings up an interesting question: how low of a tip is too low?

I, as a patron of many restaurants, am not complaining of our current restaurant system that allows us to deem ourselves worthy judges of our restaurant experiences. It allows our restaurants to push for exceptional quality and service. However, also having been a caterer on and off for ten years, I believe that there are several aspects about being a server that every patron must know.

1) Behind that black apron is a story. Serving tables is one of two options: a transitional job because nothing else is available, or a lifetime career because nothing else is possible. That young man who brought you your water without a lemon? He is either in the process of applying for grad school in fine arts or hoping to a young wife’s child on the way.

2) If your waitstaff remembers all of your order, it’s a miracle. In the US, a waitress’ questions are our appetizers: what would you like to drink? what sides? how do you want your steak? with what dressing? It is enormously difficult for your server to organize this information, not only for you but for everyone else at your table. Consider that your server is not a mental filing cabinet, and that sometimes recalling your preferences are as grueling as recalling formulas for eleventh grade physics.

3) Waiting tables is like attending a mandatory, eight-hour gym session. Ever tried to balance a dumbbell stacked with steaming, sloshing cups of soup? Your server, walking more steps in her shift than the average American walks in one day, is adept at lifting like a pro and holding poses like a dancer. Additionally, her job is a theater performance, complete with lines to memorize and a stage personna. She may be exhausted.

4) No one likes cleaning up after a messy guest. Clearing tables is one profession where someone is asked to clean up after one of your most intimate behaviors–your eating. A table of shredded napkins, spilled fruit punch, half-eaten desserts smeared with dinner rolls is not appropriate in day care, and it should not be appropriate at a restaurant.

5) You are not the only person on your server’s mind. Your server is routinely serving you and at least twenty-five other customers. If you ask for a fresh water pitcher, it is likely that the person on the table next to you needs a clean fork. If your server hands you the fork and her the pitcher, consider her stress level and attentiveness before getting angry.

6) Acknowledge the forced physical intimacy between you and your server. Not only are they shuttling back and forth between you and the kitchen with your requests for food, drink, or change in temperature, they are also leaning around you, bending in front of you, and breaking the barrier between your world and theirs. This also means that they are trying desperately not to listen to the story you are telling about your upstairs neighbor and her late-night visitors. They have their own worries, such as your request for a dessert menu, to contend with.

7) Your relationship with your server is one to be respected. It is a balancing act between your time off and her time to shine. Act courteously toward your server and it is likely that she will do the same. Good food that you did not have to cook is priceless, after all.

The wisdom of the bathroom stall

American women are infamous for using public restrooms in pairs, talking to one another while in adjacent stalls, and continuing the conversation while washing their hands and heading right back out to the public sphere. However, nothing surprised me more than these written words found in a bathroom stall in the woman’s room on the second floor of Pittsburgh‘s iconic Cathedral of Learning, where bomb threats had marred the bathroom walls less than a year ago.

Bathroom graffiti isn’t unusual, and the comments in this stall aren’t all pristine, but the tone of many of these words uplifts, rethinks, and inspires. Comments and artwork are added daily, and I visit this stall as much as possible. Seriously. Why shouldn’t a public restroom be a place of reflection and dialogue? A new perspective is sometimes most effective when it’s unexpected.

October 2012

October 2012

October 2012

How Facebook and the Photograph Define Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I just checked: on my Facebook page, I have been tagged in 508 photos over the seven years that I’ve had my profile. This number I consider modest, for my 20-something-year-old cousin—who has been a member of Facebook for five years—has been tagged in 1,615. Both of these statistics would be considered enormous by any generation other than my own, but what I’m most interested in is the difference between the number of my photographs and hers. I grew up using a film camera on class field trips, but my cousin was born into the age of the digital, the age which defined the transience of the image.  As the digital camera allowed the number of photographs available in our society to increase, and as Facebook became available to publish them all, the public’s reaction to the mechanical reproduction of the photograph has followed a very similar trajectory as predicted by an author named Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In this essay, Benjamin doesn’t deny that photography is an art form, although this was a hotly-contested issue before the 1900’s. (If the photographer doesn’t create a new item with his hands, such as a sculpture or a painting, is a photograph still art?) Benjamin contends that the framing of a particular shot allows photography to be art; however, photography remains for Benjamin a representation of reality that is mechanical in its ability to be reproduced an infinite number of times, a process that destroys the “aura” of the original representation, like “prying an object from its shell” (1236). Of the two forms of art Benjamin that defines, the purpose of photographic art is decidedly exhibitionistic, meaning, the photograph is an art form that is meant to be seen (as apposed to being a representation of worship). For him, therefore, photography is an art form with very specific implications.

Benjamin’s definition of mechanically-reproduced art is 75 years old, but the millions of photographs posted on Facebook fulfill his definition troublingly well.  Via Instant Upload, photographs can now appear on Facebook seconds after they are taken. Digital photography on Facebook is so exceptionally exhibitionistic that it is not uncommon for one to take a photograph for the specific purpose of posting it to one’s profile. It is also equally acceptable to “Facebook stalk” by indiscriminately browsing someone else’s uploaded photographs in rapid succession. The surplus of photographs available to be viewed has indeed leveled the playing field between subject and viewer as Benjamin predicting, causing all of us to find fame within reach. The following comment appeared yesterday on my friend’s wedding photo:

Dawn You look like a model, Kelsey – perfectly beautiful! Yesterday at 12:52am

After distinguishing between exhibitionist art and cultish art, Benjamin claimed that an excess of exhibition can eventually lead to worship, as in the case of models or movie stars. Evidently, in the case of Facebook, the turning of a photograph from something seen to something worshiped or revered remains true.

Benjamin concludes his essay by saying that mechanical art can ultimately lead to social war, and this may not be as extreme as it sounds. Hints of it are visible whenever Facebook viewers compare photographs not with the stars of Hollywood but with themselves. Browsing other people’s Facebook pictures, which all depict laughing groups of friends, close-knit families, well-cooked dinners, and foreign countries, the modern Facebook viewer is prone to experiencing a variety of emotions; most of my girlfriends cite inferiority, jealousy, and frustration as being the top three. The happiness portrayed through Facebook photos is selective yet holds the subtle message that if we all traveled more, bought better-fitting clothes, and drank more martinis—in other words, if we consumed more, perhaps by clicking on one of Facebook’s advertisements—we too could find the source of this happiness. Facebook and the mechanically-reproduced photographs are in this way nothing more than another capitalistic tool, not one that leads to physical warfare but one that enhances the social struggle that we claim to escape.

The previous essay was written for FR 2400 Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, October 2012.

The Pittsburgh Letters: A Montesquieu-styled social commentary

In the 1700s, the writer Montesquieu wrote an epistolary novel entitled “The Persian Letters,” in which two fictional characters travel from Persia to France and write letters home that display their observations. Their “innocent” perspective is a thinly-veiled social and political criticism of French society and the absolutist monarchy under Louis XIV. Through the eyes of a “foreigner,” our own practices — what we take for granted — can be rethought.


Sylvia to Norma R., Newburg, Pennsylvania

An early Sunday morning in Pittsburgh is the quietest of all mornings, but it’s the morning where everyone seems to be in the biggest hurry. No one walks on the sidewalk, like they do during the week; they run. Parallel with the avenues, in straight lines down the sidewalks to turn abruptly at street corners, up stairs and back down them, everyone’s in a rush, it seems, to get somewhere. The first time I saw the city so agitated I tried to stop a man and ask him if the city was in danger, but he did not hear me because his ears held tiny plugs connected by a thin wires in a way that made him oblivious to my presence beside him.

After four weeks living in Pittsburgh, I began to notice that this occurrence was somewhat regular and dependent on sunshine, but I still struggled to find the cause of this haste. Nothing is more important to an American than getting to work on time, but on Sundays, when it is said most do not work, what urgent matter do these individuals tend to? Back at home, we would wake up on Sunday mornings to milk the cows and go to church, but even then we would do so walking.

Even more troubling is the fact that the dress of the hurried is not at all the same as that worn daily. One tells me that everyone woman in Pittsburgh must have a little black dress or brown boots for these are the most expensive, but we used to wear these colors on the farm because they colors were least likely to show dirt. But in Pittsburgh, when hurried on Sunday morning, a man’s whole attire changes.  There is no collared shirt, no muted colors, no grey — suddenly he wears enough neon yellow and orange to rival a construction worker. But since he does not carry any tools except a narrow white rectangle of plastic on his arm, which, as far as I can see, has not purpose whatsoever, I doubt sincerely he is hurried for payment.

One Sunday, there was one individual who seemed more in a hurry than all the others. He was carrying some books and was wearing a backpack, which increased his strain. He cut diagonally across Schenley Plaza instead of going around it, like the others, and I was sure the others would be impressed by his ingenuity. However, the other runners seemed particularly baffled by this man and continued running, not even stopping to help collect the papers which fluttered behind him.

August 2012

August 2012

Friday Photo: ‘Curiosity of their eyes’ – thoughts on seeing

Palais des Papes, Avignon, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.

And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table.  Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls.  Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes.  The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks.  But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind.  The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter.  Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.

— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06


I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.

The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.

When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.

But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?


Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.

What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.

But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.

The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.

In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.

Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn

Trinidad, August 2010

The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.

I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them).  My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.

For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.

Friday Photo: A farm girl’s guide to end-of-the-season sweet corn

Great Aunt Esther, Summer 2008

Great Aunt Esther, Summer 2008

Each year, my family “puts away” corn, meaning that we husk dozens of sweet corn (at one point, it was around 100) picked from our field, boil it, cool it, cut it off the cob and pack it into freezer containers. When I was younger, this meant taking one full Saturday away from playing badminton and devoting myself to husking, silking, and stacking corn cobs into newspaper-lined crates with my cousins. The older brothers and fathers would boil and cool the corn; the women would cut it off the cob, and we’d all come together to eat an enormous barbeque.

I wasn’t often asked to help pick the sweet corn that is sold beneath the shade trees of Gro-Lan Farms in Shippensburg, but because I never ate out-of-season corn (like what’s sold at Kentucky Fried Chicken) until high school, I still have strong opinions of what kind of corn I’m looking for. For me, it’s not the size or the color (white, yellow, or mixed) of the kernel that counts; it’s how easily the kernel comes off the cob. Corn grown for shipping has a tougher kernel that’s genetically modified to better ensure the jostling of freight or boat, but locally-grown corn has a smaller, softer kernel that bursts pleasantly in the mouth and runs more richly with juice. Whether drowned in Land O Lakes butter and salt — my family’s preference — or grilled with goat cheese, mayonnaise, and fresh lime juice (as served at the Snack Bar of Troegs Brewery in Hershey), locally-grown sweet corn is what I prefer to sink my teeth into.

In south-central Pennsylvania, most sweet corn is typically in season from July to August, although this year’s warmer temperatures and earlier planting caused the season, as reported by The Shippensburg News-Chronicle, to begin about two weeks early. This means that even though it’s early August, some farmers are approaching the end of their sweet corn season while others, like my father, have already finished

To still secure the best corn you can, find a local vendor, such as Oak Grove Farms (846 Fisher Road, Mechanicsburg, (717) 766-2216) or Basehore Farm Market (6080 Creekview Road, Mechanicsburg, 717-691-9349) who pick the corn, can tell you its origin, and will sell it to you fresh.  If you do not have the time, look for “locally-grown” sweet corn in the produce section of the grocery store.

When selecting sweet corn that is not my father’s, I personally look for leafy, not dried, husks that cover up firm, evenly-spaced kernels. Overly-firm or puckered, discolored kernels indicate to me that the corn is old, and, as corn begins losing its sugar content the longer it’s off the stalk, it’s best to secure corn the day it’s picked. To boil corn, husk it and plunge it immediately into salted, boiling water for no more than three minutes. My 91-year-old grandmother will fly into a rage if you cook our corn longer than that.

Keep warm by draping the corn with a dishtowel until serving.

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