Streams

Last Chance Fun: Corn Mazes

Monday, October 15, 2012

WNYC

I talk about fleeting opportunities for seasonal eating during my regular Friday segment, Last Chance Foods — last week I spoke with Kurt Alstede of Alstede Farms about the waning days of the sweet corn season.  

Also fleeting are your chances to get lost in a corn maze. For me, they are a wonder-inducing activity that marks the passing of summer into fall, like jumping into a pile of fallen leaves, carving a wicked grin into a pumpkin or Halloween trick-or-treating.

If you've never walked through a corn maze before, fear not.  It's nothing like the fearsome hedge maze of horror master Stephen King's "The Shining."  

The goal of a corn maze is not to get out of it alive, but to find your way to a series of "stations" where posted signboards provide information about the topic of the maze. You're given a pencil and a map showing where each station is. (The pencil, by the way, is not for tracing your course, although you can do that, but for writing down your answers to a quiz that tests whether you were paying attention to the signboards and not just listening to the corn grow.)

The corn making up Alstede Farms' maze this year grew at the rate of 1.3 inches a day.  "We did the calculations," Kurt Alstede said. "We planted that ten-acre field [near the end of] June, and by September 1st, it was 12 feet tall.  Twelve feet of growth in 9 or 10 weeks! We see such remarkable things in agriculture every day."

The theme of Alstede's maze is New York Yankees first baseman and baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig — a childhood hero of Alstede's.

"They don't come any better than Lou Gehrig," said Alstede.  "There's no dirt on Lou Gehrig.  He was just an honest, hard-working guy, who, at the peak of his career, was struck down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,  [ALS] with such notoriety, the disease bears his name today."

Alstede reached out to Gehrig's estate and received permission to honor the Iron Horse in corn.  He then hired someone to come up with "a fun outline."

I told Alstede I though Gehrig's signature looked extra fun, especially for the worker who got to carve it out of the growing field. How DO they do that?

"We use all global positioning technology," Alstede said. "We superimpose the outline on our field in the GPS, and when the corn is 12 inches tall, we bring out the mowers with global positioning systems inside them, and follow the line.  We carve it out."

The one diabolical touch? "The corn is planted in a checkerboard," Alstede said.  "Rather than planting the rows straight back and forth, we plant in both directions. That way, you can't follow a row out of the corn."

It's not quite as diabolical as Jack Nicholson chasing Shelly Duval through the hedge maze with an axe, but it can be a bit claustrophobic.

During our visit to Alstede's farm, my husband stepped into the corn and was quickly hidden from view. See if you can spot my husband's dark blue baseball cap among the stalks. And use the remaining sunny, autumn weekends to get lost yourself. (I mean this in the nicest, corn maze kind of way!)

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