By Tiffany Walden
There weren’t too many outsiders voluntarily strolling through North Lawndale–bearing treats no less–in the 1990s. The area was (and still is, for now) an enclave of predominately black, borderline impoverished, hard-working grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts with a sprinkle of your neighborhood dope boys.
We grumbled through the winters, happy at first and then mad at the mounds of snow that made our streets impassable. But as the days grew longer, skies bluer and weather hotter, the sound of a particular jingle would echo off the two-flats lining the 4000 block of West Lexington Street. That’s when we knew it was time to go outside.
No, it wasn’t the ice cream truck playing Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” that warm weather favorite across all socioeconomic lines.
It was the sound of the Mexican Corn Man, as he was so affectionately called by myself and the other kids. It was only when I grew older that I learned that, in his culture, he was an Elotero. I really can only remember him through a ten-year-old’s lens, and now I wish I’d talked more with him; learned more about him. Gotten a recipe. I moved away from North Lawndale, to the west suburbs, when I was a fifteen-year-old. But until that move, his presence was a mainstay of my summers.
It’s unclear how the elotero wound up in my neighborhood. There weren’t many Mexicans on the north side of Roosevelt Road at that time. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any Latinos outside of him in my neighborhood as a kid. The only times I would see Mexicans and other Latinos—outside of certain restaurants—was when my mom and grandma would go to the bank off Pulaski and 26th Street. Maybe our Corn Man came from near there. Who knows? But, somehow, he would visit our block every other day or so pushing a white cart on four wheels.
He waved to the grandmothers sitting on their porches watching their grandbabies play Double Dutch, Red Light Green Light, marbles or basketball (with a milk crate) in the street. He would ring a bell, attached to the handlebar of his white cart, and we would all drop our games and run home to beg for two dollars to buy his special treats: esquites or elote.
As he opened the lid on his cart, steam would rise from the belly of it. I assumed the ears of corn were keeping warm down there during his long walk. With a smile, he would ask us what we wanted. Yes, there were options.
You could either get corn on the cob, elote, or corn shaven off of the cob into a clear plastic cup, esquites.
He seasoned the corn with the good stuff. Butter. Mayonnaise. Cheese (cotija cheese, specifically), chile pequín and lime. He wasn’t at all shy with the butter and mayonnaise. Yet, some people would still ask for extra everything. Looking back, this is probably the unhealthiest mixture of delicious ingredients ever.
Our elotero would stop three or four times as he made his way down the block. At each stop, any kids in the vicinity would make their order, walking away with two hands of corn–one for whoever at the house wanted some too. Back then, when the summers were hot enough to cause deadly heat waves, butter and mayonnaise would drip off the corn faster than a kid could eat, leaving trails of the stuff all along the sidewalk.
Once he served everyone, he would bend the corner of Karlov Avenue and disappear until the next time.
Where would he go? How long was his route? Did he walk to North Lawndale all the way from Little Village or wherever? Did he know how much his sounds and food meant to our childhood?
We never knew anything about him; not even his name. But he changed our lives. For a long time, he was my only taste of Mexican food–well, outside of tacos, but my mom knew how to make those. He was diversity to each of us in North Lawndale who never really interacted with anyone outside of our race unless it was a teacher, law enforcement officer or some other authority.
The elotero represented everything positive about summer: being able to play outside without freezing, sit on the porch until late, walk to the corner store safely without fear of being hit by a stray bullet, and of course, dine on sweetly salty-spicy corn.
Hungry for the tastes of summer?
You can’t go wrong with the Taste of Chicago, July 6-10 in Grant Park. Past vendors have included everything from Nigerian foods to deep dish pizza to South Side fried chicken.
Get in on the travel food trend by visiting the Chicago Food Truck Fest. Admission is free but each truck prices food individually. June 25-26, 2400 South Dearborn.
Do you prefer to cook your own? Support Growing Home by visiting their Wood Street Urban Farm for fresh produce. Open 11am-3pm Wednesdays to November. 5814 South Wood.