This simple side dish featuring sweet corn is easy to make and sure to please everybody at your table.
Can we drop the pretense and be honest about the Thanksgiving menu this year? It’s really about the side dishes, including fried corn. There. I’ve said it. Turkey is sort of like that relative who’s not that well liked but for whatever reason is invited each year to the table.
In fact, according to a 2019 poll by Thrillist, 42 percent of millenials served something other than turkey for a Thanksgiving main dish. You can understand the decision; look what people do to this poultry to give it flavor: inject seasoning, butter or brine; fry or smoke it; stuff it with enough aromatics to choke a steer. You get the picture.
Although my very traditional family always had a whole roasted turkey for Thanksgiving, the table was filled with scrumptious side dishes: savory sage dressing, silky mashed potatoes, tangy cranberry relish, green bean casserole, as well as a new vegetable recipe for most years. We all got to pick a favorite, and for my dad, it was always fried corn. As such, this side dish was always part of our Thanksgiving. Now when I’m invited to Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving, this is the dish I bring. It’s part of our tradition, and I’ll make it again this year.
As a history lover, Dad probably liked this side dish for Thanksgiving because he believed it tied our dinner into the original feast. But was corn part of that meal shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth in 1621? Short answer, yes, evidenced by historical documents. Kathleen M. Wall, foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation—the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts—often speaks to the subject of “the first Thanksgiving” at this time of year. In a Smithsonian magazine article, she noted corn grown by the Wampanoag was used to make bread or porridge. Other items on that table included wildfowl (maybe wild turkey, but more likely something else), venison, eel, and shellfish.
But as a curious cook, I wanted to find out more about the history of Dad’s favorite corn dish. Turns out it’s a Southern classic that’s enjoyed year-round, not just for Thanksgiving. Plenty of Southern food blogs have this recipe, and writer Andrea King Collier several years ago wrote an interesting piece the detailed her “discussion” with an editor over the authenticity of the recipe for a Thanksgiving issue. Collier said fried corn is a treasured dish for African American families and was enjoyed for Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check it out.
Sometimes called corn maque choux (“mock shoe”) in Louisiana, this fried corn dish could be a beautiful mash up of Creole and Native American food traditions. Whatever its origins, most of the fried corn recipes I’ve seen use fresh corn cut from the cob. However, we always used either frozen (thawed) or canned whole kernel corn. Why? My guess is when corn was in season, we were too busy grilling or steaming it to eat right then and there without much forethought to freeze a few bags. Anyway, other common ingredients include bacon, onion and peppers. Many recipes include either milk or cream; we didn’t do that, probably because the kernels didn’t have to tenderize while cooking. We did finish the dish with butter, though. But no matter what iteration of this classic recipe you make, it’s simply delicious and was always cleaned up at our table. There was NEVER leftover fried corn the next day.
If you still need some convincing, consider this; corn is the top-ranked canned vegetable. And considering how quickly this side dish comes together, you can prepare it on Thanksgiving without any trouble; it also can be made ahead, but a splash of cream would be nice when reheating this dish.
So, on the topic of fried corn (as well as many others), Father really did know what’s best.
2 (15-ounce) cans whole kernel corn
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 sweet red bell pepper, chopped
5 strips of bacon
2-3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Parsley to garnish (optional)
In a large skillet (use cast iron if you have it) over medium-high heat, cook bacon to well done. Drain the corn. Save rendered fat and remove bacon, placing it on a paper towel until later.
To the skillet add the onion and bell peppers and sauté until onions start to turn translucent. Add drained corn to skillet and stir to combine. Cook for about 15 minutes until the vegetables just start to caramelize. Take off heat, stir in butter, salt and pepper and serve, garnishing with parsley if desired.