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It may be corny, but market's happy POSTCARD FROM THE BEACH


The Queen is back where she belongs -- rising proud and tall, all 11 golden feet of her, next to the big tomato at Hastings Produce Market on Route 589 outside Ocean City.

Market owner Dean Hastings and his customers celebrated the return of his giant corn balloon yesterday with a day of contests, free food and T-shirts printed just for the occasion.

"It's like the unveiling," said Mr. Hastings as he and employee Heidi Christian prepared to inflate the giant balloon they've dubbed the Queen shortly after 1 p.m.

As the crowd applauded, he plugged in the fan used to inflate the balloon, and the corn slowly rose, filling with air.

When it was fully inflated, Ms. Christian uncorked a bottle of Asti Spumante, spraying the oversized vegetable with it before sharing the rest with Mr. Hastings.

"It's kind of fun -- I didn't know that they'd found it!" said Charlene Adams, a longtime Hastings customer who came on her lunch hour from her job at Marva Farm Credit in Berlin. "I heard it on the radio this morning."

Mrs. Adams was one of about 40 people who gathered at the market at 1 p.m. yesterday for the long-awaited "Raising of the Corn." The giant balloon, valued at more than $1,000, was stolen early in June and returned somewhat unceremoniously last week -- someone dumped the deflated balloon in a UPS box behind the market.

"We missed the corn -- you'd see the lonely tomato," said Barbara Pardee, another loyal Hastings customer who came to celebrate the Queen's return with her husband and daughter.

The Pardees had another reason to join the party: their 8-week-old golden retriever puppy, Eric, was sired by Dean Hastings' retriever.

"So we brought the dog to celebrate the raising of the corn!" said Mrs. Pardee, as Eric scampered around the shed, drinking water from a flowerpot saucer and sniffing at plates loaded with summer bounty from the Shore -- steamed corn (of course!), squash, watermelon wedges, fruit salad.

In front of the corn, "The Mad Russian" Robert Coolick cooked his special kielbasa. Next to his grill was a container full of steamed corn -- "It's so hot it would burn your hand!" said an exuberant Mr. Hastings as he handed the ears out to customers.

The celebration also included a corn-shucking contest, a watermelon seed-spitting contest, and prizes awarded by a local country music radio station, WWFG-FM. The station, which bills itself as "Froggy 99," brought the frog mascot to the party, and the frog danced with small children as country music blared from the station's van.

"We're friends of the frog!" joked Gretchen Brenner, 18.

"Her mom's the frog -- I'm serious," amplified her friend Jaime Palmer, also 18.

"The investigation is continuing," said Lt. Edwin Lashley of the Berlin barracks of the Maryland State Police, the agency looking into the theft.

"We have made no arrests, although the stolen item has been returned."

Indeed it has -- the Queen has come home just in time to herald the arrival of the real thing, as Maryland's corn comes to harvest.

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