There are a few theories about the origin of the word “corny.” One story goes that mail-order seed catalogs in the early 20th century included dumb jokes and hokey stories amongst the listings for corn prices. Another opinion is that it was a pejorative for unsophisticated country folk, a la “cornfed hayseeds”; this one continues that the country bumpkin would get especially mawkish after a bit of corn liquor. The most illogical postulation I found tried to pin it on the people of Cornwall, who seem to have a reputation for being different. I’d never heard of this anti-Cornish sentiment before, so it was rather alarming to come across it. However, since “corny” doesn’t mean strange or different, this theory is busted. Nice try, Cornwall haters.
ETIQUETTE: The proper eating of corn on the cob seems to have been an obsession with etiquette experts once upon a time. Flip through any chapter on table manners in an etiquette book written before 1970, and you’ll find corn on the cob. I imagine that the readers of these books during this period were delicate city gentlewomen who needed to be talked through a procedure that involved eating with one’s fingers. Fried chicken is another favorite topic of this time.
Anyway, the basic idea for corn consumption is to go forth bravely without being a complete savage. Do not butter and season the entire cob at one time so that butter and mayonnaise and your little cheesy bits are dripping all over the place; just butter a few rows at a time. Take hold firmly by both ends of the cob if no corncob holders have been provided, and eat away (in her etiquette book from the ’60s, Eleanor Roosevelt actually directs the eater to “gnaw it,” and as soon as I read that I couldn’t get the picture of old Eleanor Roosevelt gnawing away at a corncob out of my head for some time). Don’t get all fussy with cutting the kernels off the cob unless your dental situation merits it.
SUPERSTITION: When you harvest corn, the spirit that lives within the crop loses its house. If you’re nice and make a temporary home for it, you’ll have a good harvest next year. Make a corn dolly out of the last few stalks of corn and hang it up in the kitchen. The “dolly” is often not actually a doll figure, but a bell, spiral, horseshoe or lantern shape (and it’s not always made of corn; sometimes rye, wheat, or oats are used). In parts of Germany, the dolly actually is formed as a doll, dressed in women’s clothing and called the Corn Mother. The Corn Mother is thrown into the barn for the mice to eat so they’ll leave the rest of the harvest alone. Gnaw the Corn Mother, mice. Go ahead.