Finding Joy in a Bowl of Popcorn - No. 178
Snacking into the New Year. How to pop your own. The best tasting popcorn on the shelf, and even a popcorn-inspired soup!
I WAS LISTENING TO DAN PASHMAN on The Sporkful interview historian Jessica B. Harris about her memoir, My Soul Looks Back, and her life in New York City in the early 1970s.
She fell in with a group of black intellectuals including poet Maya Angelou, singer Nina Simone, and writer James Baldwin who on one occasion was reading an early draft of his book, If Beale Street Could Talk. Novelist Toni Morrison arrives, and Baldwin goes into the kitchen to pop popcorn so he can read it all over again.
Dan Pashman says he never met James Baldwin, but he thinks of popcorn as ‘’very joyous,’’ and he loves the idea of thinking someone who at a distance might seem serious is doing something so joyful as making popcorn.
‘’I love making it and the experience of listening to the kernels and seasoning them and eating them,’’ he says. ‘’The day you stop loving making popcorn, you have lost all joy.’’
Popcorn is a low-cost multi-sensory experience. You smell, hear, see, taste, and feel the kernels as they go into your mouth. Just weeks ago when we were in pre-holiday mode I mentioned that my favorite stupid-easy appetizer was freshly popped popcorn with nutritional yeast sprinkled over. It’s not fancy by any means, but it doesn’t intend to be. Which is why I wanted to write about it this first week of the new year. It is everything I want the first days of January to be when I have one toe planted in 2022 and the others moving forward to 2023.
Popcorn is a bit of a clean slate but still festive.
Popcorn is less rich but still snacky.
Popcorn is a food to be curious about.
It’s America’s oldest snack and the ‘’great equalizer,’’ according to the brilliant writer Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn.
‘’Popcorn bags the past with the present and evokes even in old age the memories of childhood. We eat it not because it’s good for us, which it is, but because it’s joke food, and Americans love joke food. We eat popcorn for fun.’’
From Jiffy Pop to movie-theater butter to smarter pops to convenience
We begged our mother to buy those Jiffy Pop all-in-one contraptions if friends were coming over. You placed the aluminum pan containing popcorn and oil on the stove, shaking the built-in handle to move around the kernels, and within minutes it swelled up like a balloon you slit to reveal the fat and crunchy popcorn inside.
Back then popcorn was something you bought hot and fresh at the movie theater, so when Jiffy Pop allowed us fresh popcorn plus drama in our very own kitchens, it was an awakening. (And Jiffy Pop is still around on Amazon, but search the ingredients first because you might not like what you find… palm oil and the controversial preservative TBHQ.)
Tending to lean healthy, while I was working in Atlanta I shopped at one of the first health food venues of the South—Sevenanda—in Little Five Points. It was a legit hippie food store, and amid the incense, home-farmed produce, vitamins, and yogurt makers were little brown sacks of freshly popped corn tossed with nutritional yeast. It was the best popcorn of my memory.
When microwave popcorn came on the scene it meant you could take the taste and comfort of freshly popped corn with you, but somehow the popped corn got further from the field.
It reeked of fake butter, and the very smell of it takes me back—not in a good way—to the newspaper cafeteria with its cloud of cigarette smoke and vending machines spewing Diet Coke and candy bars.
So when I was raising young children who had reached the age they weren’t going to choke on popcorn and was living in Nashville with no Sevananda, I would NEVER buy movie theater butter-flavored microwave popcorn for them. Although I just found out daughter one would secretly buy packets from the Vanderbilt vending machines while she was at tennis camp…
I would buy a jar of plain popcorn and pop my own. Boring, maybe, but it was a fraction of the cost and I could control the ingredients.
Plus, back when microwaves and microwave popcorn itself were in their infancies, guessing how long to cook a packet involved some risk. One second too long and a putrid stench was cast for miles, seeping into memory banks. I asked daughter two if she recalled such an popcorn experience. ‘’If one idiot burns popcorn? Yes, the alarm goes off and you have to evacuate the dorm when you’re studying for exams. It’s annoying.’’
On my Nashville store shelf today, plain old-fashioned popcorn is crowded out by microwave and pre-popped corn. They go by names that draw us in—Skinnygirl, Lesser Evil—as well as the trusted Orville Redenbacher, founded by the Indiana agricultural scientist whose geeky knowledge of hybrid corn propeled his business to success about the same time James Baldwin was popping corn and reading to his friends.
Marketing, packaging, and clever names have greatly affected what popcorn we buy. But what if we didn’t pay attention to the names or logos? What if all the popcorns were dumped into bowls and we tasted them blind to find the best?
On January 1, with family in the house and this Substack to finish, I sent daughter one to Publix to buy a random assortment of popcorn. The only stipulation I made was that the popcorn be as unadulterated as possible so we could taste the corn.
What I learned from a popcorn tasting is that popcorn is personal.
Of our five tasters, my husband and son-in-law clearly wanted popcorn straight up and simple. No flourishes. They abhored - is that a strong enough word? - the popcorn popped in coconut oil.
Two of the tasters, the daughters, loved the coconut-popcorn combination. They buy popcorn in coconut oil. Which leads me to my second take-away: We get accustomed to the popcorn we pop, buy, and eat regularly. It satisfies our crunch needs and has the right amount of salt, or none whatsoever.
Our favorites were in order:
Orville Redenbacher Naturals Simply Salted (palm oil)
Skinnygirl Butter & Sea Salt (milk and palm oil)
Home-cooked popcorn popped in avocado oil
Boomchickapop received honorable mention. While the Lesser Evil Coconut Oil popcorn was polarizing for some, we felt indifferent about the Lesser Evil Avocado Oil and SkinnyPop. Publix’s house brand of microwave popcorn seemed the worst - inconsistent distribution of flavors, from bland to salty, depending on the kernel.
Ironically, or maybe not so, our two favorites are both Conagra products, with Skinnygirl’s packaging saying ‘’created by our friends at Orville Redenbacher’s.’’ PopSecret, the other big microwave popcorn, is owned by Campbell’s Soup but wasn’t in our tasting because it’s so heavily flavored.
Do you have a favorite brand of popcorn? Do you pop your own popcorn?
A quick word about oil
If you pop your own popcorn, avocado oil is recommended because oils like avocado have the highest smoke points and tolerate high-heat cooking. They don’t break down from the heat into free radicals, which are believed to be cancer causing. Other high-heat tolerant oils include peanut, sunflower, safflower, and soybean. Olive, grape seed, and canola oil have slightly lower smoke points, making them best for pan sautes over medium heat or for dressing a salad. Coconut oil and palm oil can handle high heat, but they are highly saturated and not heart healthy.
Hey, it’s January, and while this might have seemed like TMI about popcorn during the holidays, it’s not now. How we think about food and cook in this first month very much sets the scene for the remaining 11 months.
And I don’t know about you, but I am ready to be joyful!
Have a great week!
- xo, Anne
This Thursday for Paid Subscribers: Little King Cakes!
Welcome to the new paid subscribers! We are glad to have you join us for all the extra recipes and content on Thursdays in 2023. And just in time for baking for Epiphany, January 6, are these super-festive little cakes.
How to Make Perfect Homemade Popcorn
I pop fresh corn with this simple method. It’s important to open the lid during the process to allow steam to escape. This keeps the popcorn crunchy.
Place 2 tablespoons avocado oil in a saucepan with tight fitting lid.
Add 1/3 cup popcorn kernels. (I used to add just a couple kernels of popcorn, put the lid on the pan, and place over medium heat. And when a kernel popped, remove the lid and very quickly add the rest of the popcorn kernels. But I don’t do that anymore. I just put all the popcorn in at the front end.)
Place over medium heat. With one hand on the lid and the other on the handle of the pan, shake the pan gently back and forth over the heat to keep things moving.
When the popcorn is nearly at the top of the pan, open the lid to let the steam escape. Quickly dump some of the popped corn into a serving bowl. Put the lid back on and keep shaking until the last kernel pops, them remove the lid and turn the rest of the popcorn into the bowl. Season as you wish with kosher or sea salt and whatever seasonings you desire. A drizzle of butter, a dash of Za’atar, a sprinkle of dill weed, or a dusting of flaky nutritional yeast.
Nancy’s Popcorn Soup
From canned corn, chicken broth, half-and-half, and some popcorn is this lightning-fast and whimsical popcorn soup recipe shared with me years ago by Nancy Crossman for my book, The Dinner Doctor. Her mother, growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio, would make this in the wintertime to the delight of Nancy and her siblings.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Prep: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook: 10 to 15 minutes
2 cans (14 to 15 ounces) cream-style corn
1 can (11 ounces) corn kernels, drained
2 cups (1 pint) half-and-half
2 cups chicken broth (homemade or canned)
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1 teaspoon chicken base
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons butter
Black pepper or hot sauce, if desired
2 cups popped corn
Place the cream-style corn, corn, half-and-half, chicken broth, and bouillon cube in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and stir and cook until the soup simmers and thickens, 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar, butter, and black pepper or hot sauce, if desired. Ladle into serving bowls and garnish each with some of the popcorn.
I pop my own in a brown paper bag, sans oil, in the microwave. It comes out fluffy, white and dry. I think I got the recipe off the bag of Bob's Red Mill but I might've found it on the internet. I don't remember. I don't add anything to it. I like butter and toppings, but too much. So I count my blessings and just enjoy the popped corn. That said, my daughter adds nutritional yeast and swears by it and now that I read it has Anne Byrn's blessing as well...well...
When I was a child, my grandparents had a long handled thing made of metal mesh, with a sliding top. We put the popcorn in it and shook it while it popped in their fireplace! Such fun for a kid.
I always pop our own- usually in a microwave popcorn maker, olive or avocado oil.. a dash of salt. That’s it!