Labor Day is almost upon us, a time to relax, enjoy the waning warmth of summer, have a few adult beverages, consider the contributions of labor and play cornhole.
This last activity would not have made my list of Labor Day activities a year ago, but cornhole has been a 2014 revelation to me.
My education began on Memorial Day weekend when I attended the wedding of Charlie and Karin Lewis in Boothbay, Maine. As the bride was of Swedish descent and had lived in Amsterdam, many of the guests were from overseas. They were a stylish lot, speakers of many languages and sophisticated in manners and dress. It was left to me to play the rube, which for some reason proved easy.
Yet the day after the wedding, when all the guests gathered for a picnic, it was the European guests who were tossing the cornhole bags with merry abandon. No Gallic shrugs, no murmuring of Scandinavian oaths, no peering down superior English noses, just sheer enthusiasm as the foreign visitors embraced this most American of pastimes.
What is more, they were good at the game. You’d think it was soccer the way they were playing. The cornbags were dutifully falling in the cornholes with the regularity of critics falling into the pit of mirthless incomprehension at the sight of a joke in one of my columns.
Sensitized to the cornhole experience, I have been on the lookout all summer for further signs of cornhole as a social phenomenon. The clincher came when I visited a certain exclusive country club, the sort that would have the good taste not to have me as a member, and found — yes, you guessed it — cornhole. Better yet, the cornhole equipment was painted in the club colors.
Folks, we got ourselves a trend story. For those of you not yet touched by this trend, an explanation is in order. There’s these little bags of corn, see — at least I hope it’s corn and not plastic pellets made in China — and you lob them into the air. There’s a ramp with a target hole, and the winner is the one who manages to have the most bags fall into the hole. Some rules apply, but they would only complicate the explanation.
It is harder than it looks, unless you are a trendy European wedding guest in tight pants.
The closest thing to the game in my experience is horseshoes, except for the obvious dissimilarities. Horseshoes has a pit, cornhole has a ramp. Although both have obvious rustic roots, there’s no suggestion of livestock involvement in cornhole, unless the corn was left over as feed.
With cornhole, unlike horseshoes, the participant need not feel guilty about some poor horse having to stand around in his naked hooves while the farmer is off playing with his pals.
But just as one swallow does not a summer make, one anecdote does not a summer trend story make. That is why I contacted the American Cornhole Association. Yes, it exists, and its president, Mike Whitton, 73, of Orange County, Calif., was happy to answer my questions.
The association, which was formed in 2004 to promote cornhole and standardize its rules, managed to recruit some 5,000 members at first and now has somewhere around 45,000. To the best of Mr. Whitton’s knowledge, the game started on the west side of Cincinnati and in nearby Kentucky. He remembers playing cornhole in Cincinnati as a child.
Members of the military have shown a great fondness for the game, Mr. Whitton reports, and they have taken it overseas. The association receives pictures of soldiers from as far away as Afghanistan equipped with M-16 rifles and cornhole bags. Hey, take that, Taliban!
I asked Mr. Whitton about the name cornhole, which to delicate ears has a certain earthy connotation. Indeed, some sensitive souls prefer to call the game “corn toss,” “bean bag” or “bean toss.”
Mr. Whitton has heard the juvenile jokes but dismisses them. “It’s going to be called cornhole because you throw a bag of corn through a hole.” In the face of such old-fashioned common sense, Queen Victoria herself would have rejected any objection to decorum, assuming that she was in the habit of heaving bags of corn for amusement.
By the way, there is also an American Cornhole Organization, which arranges professional tournaments including a world championship. The existence of both groups answers in the affirmative the eternal question: “Is this a great country or what?” Cornhole, America’s gift to the world.
Reg Henry: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1668.