Smoke Stack’s Cheesy Corn Bake

When gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon and our family Plymouth got over twenty miles per gallon, summer drives were an inexpensive way to make weekends special. Sometimes we drove to a lake with Dad’s canoe on top of the car and our cane poles tied next to it.

When wild berries were in season, we threaded narrow roads to berry patches and when the leaves began turning in the fall, Mom drove slowly on gravel roads through bright vistas while Dad rode shotgun and watched for grouse. Sometimes he even shot one as it stood on the edge of the road.

If I were to say that we kids always looked forward to those weekend jaunts, I would be stretching the truth, but we usually enjoyed them. Fishing or swimming in a lake we had never seen before was a treat and finding the site of an old lake cabin at the end of a grass-covered driveway was really special. As amateur archeologists, we explored the ruins and searched for artifacts. Every once in a while we would find an unbroken bottle or other treasure that we carried home to add to our collections.

Visits to lakes were also the expeditions that included a picnic. Besides letting us enjoy two of our favorite foods at the time (wieners and soft, store-bought buns), we learned the joy of cooking our own food.

Like our early ancestors we searched for the perfect toasting sticks under the watchful eye of our father. “No willow sticks,” he would say as we studied those beautiful straight stems crowded along the lakeshore. “They give wieners a bitter taste. Hazel brush is better.” When we were very young, my father cut the sticks we selected (offering more guidance as needed).

When I got my first jackknife, I was promoted to stick cutter. At first I was proud of my new position, but putting up with the indecisiveness and bossiness of two younger sisters moderated my enthusiasm. Still, it was fun to be an important part of a successful picnic. Dad built the fire and warmed the beans while Mom got out the wieners, buns, mustard and ketchup. I provided the tools for cooking the meat.

The best toasting sticks have a fork at the end, so the wiener is impaled on two points. This arrangement reduces the chance that the wiener will fall into the fire and of course prevents the sausage from rotating on the stick as you turn it to roast the wiener evenly. As I recall my sisters were impatient picnickers.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my frequent advice to hold their wieners over the coals and away from the flames, they ended up with burned or even occasionally flaming wieners. It does take some patience to set a wiener afire, but they managed it.

Speaking from experience I can confirm that it is much easier to set marshmallows afire. Today I hardly ever ignite a torch on the end of the toasting stick, but as even my father had to blow out flames from his marshmallow once in a while, so also I sometimes eat one that is “a little overdone.”

It seems a little more difficult today to toast a marshmallow properly. I do know that Campfire Marshmallows were made to be toasted. It said so on the box. If you are over sixty, you probably remember those little boxes. They were handy for storing crickets and small frogs after the marshmallows had been eaten.

Campfire marshmallows were made by a different process than is used today which produced a firmer marshmallow. They were made by the Redel Candy Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can still buy Campfire Marshmallows, but they are made by squeezing goo out of a tube like any other brand of marshmallow.

Incidentally, Campfire Marshmallows have their place in culinary history. The year was 1939, near the end of the the Great Depression. The Campfire Girls were looking for a way to raise funds. Mildred Day and Malitta Jensen, employees of the Kellogg Corporation, came to their rescue by inventing a new treat called Rice Krispies Marshmallow Treats. It was a win-win-win-win situation: Good for Kellogg and Redel corporations, a money maker for the Campfire girls and a new candy (cookie?) for millions of hungry people. Probably good for dentists too.

Not my favorite, as my mother-in-law used to say. However, the fact that they are sold in nearly every service station and supermarket in the country is pretty persuasive evidence that I am in the minority.

Rather than explaining how to make those sticky things, I suggest that you consider a vegetable dish that we would have enjoyed on our picnics if we had known how to make it. I’m sure that it would go great with wieners, hot dogs or brats. We were introduced to it by Lynne and Mike, one of Jerri’s nieces and her husband who live in Overland Park, Kansas. They took us out to Jack Stack’s Barbecue and insisted that we try the Cheesy Corn Bake as one of the sides with our barbecue.

Here is Lynne’s version of the recipe that she shared with us. She called it Smoke Stack’s Cheesy Corn Bake. It is superb with barbecued ribs or burnt ends. You might want to give it a try.

INGREDIENTS:

2 T butter
5 tsp. flour
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups grated American cheese
3 oz. cream cheese
2 lbs. frozen whole kernel corn
3 oz. diced ham

Thaw and drain the corn and chop or grate the American cheese. Cube the cream cheese and dice the ham. Grease a two quart casserole and preheat the oven to 350º.

Melt the butter in a three quart saucepan over moderate heat. Stir in the flour and garlic powder. Keep stirring for about two minutes until you have a smooth roux. Add the milk all at once. Stir constantly until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Stir in the cheeses and keep stirring until they are melted.

Stir the corn and ham into the cheese sauce. Bring the mixture to steaming, stirring frequently to prevent it from scorching. Pour it into the casserole and bake at 350º for 45 minutes.

NOTES: Some versions of this recipe call for using cheddar cheese. I used small pieces of ham left over from a baked ham. The extra smoky flavor was a plus.

A note on names. When Lynne first had Cheesy Corn Bake, it was at Smoke Stack Barbecue, the restaurant opened by Russ Fiorella. Russ’s son Jack first worked with his father, then opened his own barbecue restaurant which he called Fiorella’s Jack Stack of Martin City. When Jack assumed operation of his father’s restaurants, he changed the name of all of them to Jack Stack Barbecue.

Lynne noted that she has also made this recipe in a crockpot. It makes six to eight generous servings, and leftovers hold well.

And as Lynne ended her recipe to us, “Enjoy!”

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