April 1, 2011

A Kernel Of Truth


You must admit that popcorn is one of the great miracles of life.

Scientists know all this absurdly complex stuff about the structure of matter, right down to subatomic particles, but no one has any idea how popcorn works. If anything, a dried kernel of corn, when tossed into a boiling pot of oil, should just burn up or, at best, explode into something you have to scrape off the ceiling.

There's simply no rational explanation for how it turns into those neat little puffs of food that are unlike anything else.

I think God made popcorn when he was either very drunk or absolutely bored out of his mind. It's really one of his best jokes.

So why do I bring this up?

Well, Carol Anne has asked us to write something about food and this is the best I could do. You don't want to hear me sermonizing about sauces, semolina, and saucisses, do you? I don't know the difference between a soufflé and a sous-chef.

It's much better that I stick with something that I know - or that I used to know.

I was munching on some microwave popcorn last week and stopped in mid-bowl (and with popcorn, you know how hard it is to stop in mid-bowl). What the heck was this yucky stuff I was shoveling down, I thought. The crud tasted so much of chemicals that I started thinking back to the halcyon days of my youth when I was actually pretty darned good at making real popcorn.

If you think about it, the sad state of popcorn today is really emblematic of everything that is wrong with us. It is said we don't make anything in this country, anymore. Well, we certainly don't make popcorn. When did it become too hard to measure out some kernels, put some honest to goodness vegetable oil in a pot, set the flame properly, choose some seasonings, and get busy?

Must everything come pre-measured, pre-packaged, sealed in cellophane, drowning in diacetyl artificial butter flavoring, and laced with tocopherols (whatever the heck tocopherols are)?

Are we no longer masters of our own destinies? Can we not pop our own corn?

I marched myself over to the market (well, OK, I drove there), picked up some popping corn (they had only two kinds on the shelf, next to the 342 kinds of microwave popcorn), and vowed that I would start saving America right then and there, one kernel at a time.

Back home, I measured.

I poured.

I waited for my three test kernels.

I spread to the critical one-kernel depth.

I moderated the flame to perfection.

And dammit, I popped!

And, perhaps most important of all, I removed from heat at just the critical moment. No burned and pungent embarrassment for me, thank you.

I may now proudly report that I am once again master of my own kernels!

But what about you? Are you a slave to that wimpy, oily bag of pre-packaged mediocrity? Are you content to let the heirs of someone named Orville call the shots for you from their power base somewhere in Nebraska?

Throw off your chains! Take charge of your life and season to taste!

And please, if you know where I can find that spicy, yellow-colored popcorn seasoning I used to get when I was a kid, tell me, please.

That's still driving me nuts.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Love the new look to your blog. That black background looks so distinguished and elegant. Lends the blog a whole new air of authority, even if undeserved. It's a clean look that refreshes the soul (as long as you don't look too closely at the content.)

    How do you do it?

  3. I've long thought the effort necessary to wash one extra pot was totally worth the better taste. A little salt, a little real butter - yum!

    ps - how did you like the tongue-twister I wrote for you? It's almost bad poetry!

  4. It's called mustard. Don't laugh, we used it to extend the popcorn when we had no money in school. It tastes good!

  5. Bonnie, I was terribly tired, tongue-tied, and traumatized by totally too many tasks at work to take the time to say tanks for the tongue twister.

    Baydog, one thing I've always marvelled at about foodies is their ability to taste something and immediately figure out what ingredients are responsible for that taste. I'll say something like, "Gee, that tastes like the smoky memory of a forgotten time," and the foody in the group always pipes up with, "Nah, that's cumin."

    But thanks for solving that mystery for me. Now, how do I turn mustard into something I can sprinkle on popcorn?

    Tillerman, you're right. Appearance is much more important than content. When I grasped that, I suddenly realized how some are able to so easily advance upward through the levels of corporate management. And as you intimate, I have adopted the same Blogger template that you did, after struggling with most of them to get closest to the look I had on my old layout.

    I was looking for a wider column format mostly for the benefit of arnold the cockroach, a sometime vers libre poet. Now, if he attempts any verse, his flowing couplets won't get wrapped onto multiple lines.

    And this lets me run photos larger, too.

  6. You buy the powder... Penzeys

    They have cumin, too.

  7. Thank you, Mojo.

    But there was a popcorn seasoning I used to get when I was a kid that came packaged with a particular brand of popping corn, whose name I can't remember. It must have had mustard powder in it, but blended with other mystical stuff.

    Is there a modern equivalent, or has the secret been lost to the ages?

  8. I think you must be talking about some of that good old-fashioned mix of maltodextrin, citric acid, lactic acid, lecithin, dextrose, hydrolyzed corn protein, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate and silicon dioxide that Mama used to make. I always thought that the real secret ingredient was the disodium guanylate. Yum.

  9. That must be it!

    (Sorry, I've just bought a box of these exclamation marks from Buff Staysail and thought I'd try one out.)

    Sounds like the perfect topping for my organic, all-natural popcorn.

  10. Did you buy the the hydrogenated exclamation marks or the free range ones?

  11. I much prefer popping corn on a pot on our gas range... I agree that almost all microwave popcorn has a fake taste.

    my wife has the popcorn in a pan on the stove down to a science, but she's on a little bit of a health kick right now, and wants to avoid the oil. as such, we just bought an air popper - used it last night for the 1st time. works ridiculously fast, and isn't so oily.

    I remember back as a kid on movie night - we would run the air popper forever, filling up a brown paper grocery bag with enough popcorn for Dad and Mom, me and my six siblings. the constant drone of the air popper drove my father nuts.

    I still like to melt a little real butter and sprinkle on plain salt - perfect combination.

  12. My2Fish, this is a bit too weird.

    What prompted me to write this post in the first place is that, after thinking about it for a few years, for some reason, I finally got around to getting one of those air poppers, too. Mine also arrived yesterday and last night was the first time I used it! (Sorry, I have a fresh supply of exclamation marks, so I'm being a little careless with them today).

    I was thinking about making that a separate post, but since you brought it up...

    Like you, my first thought was hmm... guilt-free popcorn - no artery-clogging oil. But the first batch tasted something like styrofoam (not that I eat a lot of styrofoam, understand). Sprinkling salt on did little good, as I discovered it's mainly the oil that makes the salt stick - no oil, no salt.

    So then I started wondering, hmm have I been fooling myself all of these years? Is it not really popcorn I like, but just oil and salt? Is the popcorn just an inert vehicle for darker desires?

    Or has this just revealed that I am using a tasteless popping corn?

    Does anyone know the answers to these vital questions.

    Is tasty air-popped popcorn merely a myth?

  13. Yes, I see ... "an inert vehicle for darker desires"?

    I think we have have some issues to deal with here.

    When did you first have lustful feelings for oil and salt?

    ... and why do you think of yourself as a tasteless corny popper?

  14. OK doc, I know that you believe nothing we say is accidental - that even apparent slips are laced with meaning, so maybe there is something deep and primal about my desire for oil and salt. And why do I choose a word like 'tasteless' ? Am I revealing my hidden, dark side?

    But why does this subject also make you stumble and repeat yourself?

    Perhaps, you 'have have' some fears or hidden lusts of your own?

  15. It's true, O Docker, I do have have some fears...

    ... mainly around spell checker, which is never as right as Wikipedia always is!

    Sometimes I wake up after gorging on butter and salt and I feel so inadequate...

    ... but licking my lips for an adult beverage.

    (hidden lust exposed)

  16. A tale of two wedding presents:

    Many long years ago, when Pat and I got married, we got four crock pots and 12 sets of towels. We also got an air popcorn popper and something called a Chef's Pot.

    We had already experienced air-popped popcorn, which definitely does taste exactly like Styrofoam. So we kept the popcorn popper long enough not to insult the person who had given it to us, and then we donated it to a thrift shop.

    The Chef's Pot was another creature altogether. It has a crockery liner so it can be used as a crock pot (the thrift store in our neighborhood really cashed in big time on the surplus appliances), but it also can be used as a rice/vegetable/tamale/pudding steamer, a deep fryer, and, most important, a popcorn popper.

    Yes, it requires oil to pop the popcorn, but three tablespoons of oil, distributed over six quarts of finished popcorn, plus three tablespoons of melted butter added at the end of the process, still makes popcorn a low-fat food. I use garlic powder instead of salt, and I throw in whatever other seasonings I'm in a mood for -- chile powder and liquid smoke for barbecue, Parmesan cheese and oregano for Italian, brown sugar and cinnamon for something sweet.

    You will note that I use the present tense. I still have that Chef's Pot, and I still use it.

  17. I haven't had nuked popcorn in many years.

    I cook my organic corn in just enough rice bran oil* to cover the bottom of the pan and instead of butter I use olive oil and instead of salt, grated Parmesan cheese or garlic powder - like Carol Anne.

    *Rice bran oil has a very high smoke point, and is a healthy choice as well, so is great for this purpose.

  18. Saving American one kernel at a time! sign me on! No to air-popped, yes to butter and real oil! Try sprinkling with brewer's yeast. I had it at a hippie commune, and it was delicious. I like the cheese, garlic, idea. Cayenne? cajun seasoning? blackened popcorn without the blackening part?

    (i like the new look!)

  19. I feel like I had a deprived childhood because I can't take part in this conversation and have no idea what you all see in eating styrofoam. Growing up in England, I don't recall ever eating popcorn. Or perhaps my parents wouldn't let me have it.

    Doesn't anyone want to talk about faggots and mushy peas?

  20. Don't ask, don't tell.

    Didn't the old hunched-over man on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV have a faggot on his back?

    I'm sure there's a French word for mushy peas, isn't there O Docker?

  21. Thanks Carol Anne, Panda, and Bowsprite for the tasty suggestions. I'm looking forward to some experimenting.

    I did track down some mustard powder, but I still don't think that was the main ingredient in that seasoning I liked as a kid. I found some 'seasoned salt' that has garlic, chile pepper, pepper, paprika, and onion mixed in which was pretty good on today's batch, though. The quest continues.

    Tillerman, I didn't realize that corn isn't a common vegetable in the UK. The absolutely fascinating site UK Agriculture says that, for the most part, the UK doesn't have enough 'summer warmth' to allow corn to ripen fully. Who would have guessed that?

    Corn is actually a domesticated variety of grass that was apparently first cultivated in Mexico. Native Americans introduced it to the, uh, 'visiting' Europeans who happened by, but it was not grown commercially in the UK until the early 20th century - mainly as silage for farm animals.

    Baydog, I can think of a few French words for mushy peas, but none of those belong in a family-oriented blog.

  22. Corn is grown in the UK. We call it maize and feed it to animals.

    Verification word: licking

  23. I think the French word for mushy peas is guacamole.

  24. Ah, no you don't.

    Guacamole, both the name and the universally admired foodstuff, are products of America (in the most literal interpretation of that name).

    And who, having tasted guacamole, has not been overjoyed by its incomparable texture and taste?

    We are not forever forced to make elaborate apologies for our mushy cuisine (and finally, a truly French word for Baydog).

  25. Likely story. Next thing you will be telling me that French fries are based on an American (in the most literal interpretation of that name) vegetable and named by Thomas Jefferson. You Americans think you invented everything.

  26. O Docker, if the seasoning you remember is like the seasoning I remember (violently, vehemently bright yellow), turmeric is probably the major ingredient.

    Tillerman, I believe the French for mushy peas is gros poix.

  27. Gros poix?

    I suspect that's some kind of very rude French pun, but it's too early in the day for me to be drunk enough to understand French puns.

  28. Gros poix?

    I suspect that's some kind of very rude French pun, but it's too late in the day for me to be sober enough to understand French puns.

  29. It is always amazing how long you guys can milk out a post with comments and changes subjects!

    Plain popcorn has very little taste, it is the oil and additivies. I like mine with Parmesan cheese and oregano, olive oil and some garlic powder/salt and Cayenne. I have like the Blog-father ever eaten syrofoam, I'll take you guys word on how it taste.

    ..and so what if I'm way behind on reading and posting come back, I have two blogs and two hulls to deal with...well three with the dinghy.

  30. I like to think of this not as 'milking' a post, Zen, but as exploring the post's true potential.

    The longer I mil.... uh, explore a post's potential, the fewer posts I have to write.

    So, if no one likes the taste of plain old popcorn and only all of the oil and seasonings and stuff that we pour on it, why do we bother with the popcorn at all?

    Styrofoam or woodchips would be cheaper and probably easier to make.