My conception of popcorn may have changed over the years, but I have always loved it.
Does anyone else remember Jiffy Pop popcorn? That stuff fascinated me when I was a kid. The kernels came bunched in a tinfoil pan, flimsy and destined to be trashed. I suppose it was intended for camping — popping corn over a campfire was probably far more romantic than the electric stove. But on our electric stove at home, I’d watch as the outline of popcorn bulged out of the thin lid. Soon, popcorn. I’m sure that the convenience food was suffused with chemicals and lousy additives I would never eat now. It seems like the kind of product that has gluten in it, somehow. (however, turns out Jiffy Pop is gluten-free, so you can still experience it.) But when I was a kid, I loved the mystery, the sense of potentiality, of popcorn beginning to emerge.
Mostly, though, we ate popcorn that cascaded from our hot air popcorn maker. Intended for people who wanted to make popcorn healthy (none of that nasty butter or oil in the age of margarine), the hot air popper took a few moments to whirl to life. The air coming from it always smelled like warm plastic, a draft you didn’t want to stand in. If you could stand the heat and smell, and peer inside, you’d see popcorn kernels twirling frantically in the metal tunnel, like a centrifuge of food. After what seemed a lifetime, white kernels came flying from the yellow plastic shield. A big bowl of popcorn waited. On top of the popcorn maker sat a shallow divot, also of yellow plastic. If you put a pat of butter in it before turning on the maker, you had a pool of butter — white milk solids swirling on top — to pour onto the popcorn. Sadly, even with all that butter, and those god-awful salts that claimed to taste like butter or bacon, the popcorn tasted pretty close to the plasticky warm air from which it came.
It took me years to graduate to the basic technique: popping corn in a big pot, a skim of oil on the bottom, kernels swimming, dancing. This popcorn making does require patience, a lot of shaking the pan across the burner, a keen listening for the first poppings, and then the anticipatory moments of hearing every kernel pop at once, a small thunderstorm underneath the metal lid. So much more pleasure than the others. So satisfying. And the popcorn actually had a taste, free of chemicals and plastic.
For years, when Sharon and I went to the movies, we shared a big tub of popcorn (what exactly made that sickly yellow butter color that soaked at least half the kernels?) mixed with a giant box of Milk Duds. Think we’re crazy? So did I when she introduced me to it. But she converted me, quickly. I miss it now, and her.
These days, it’s pretty simple. Popcorn I make myself, good-quality butter, and a hint of truffle and salt. Wait, you haven’t eaten black truffle salt on popcorn? Good god. Get to it! And it’s not nearly as expensive as it seems. We’ve had one of those little jars for over a year, and it’s still not empty. You don’t want it on everything. But popcorn? You do.
Last evening, if you had been here, you would have found me on the bed, my belly nearly obscuring the television screen before me, Bringing Up Baby on the dvd (oh! Cary Grant), and a bowl of popcorn at my left hand.
It doesn’t take much to make happiness in a moment. Give me some real popcorn, and I’m there.
How about you? What is your favorite way to eat popcorn? Have any creative recipes that involve dried corn kernels that don’t turn into popcorn?