Sept 1, 2021–One powerful and unexpected aspect of the world’s return to events, fairs, and festivals is the resurrection of the sense of smell. Corn dogs, cotton candy, grilled hunks of sausage on a stick, baked breads, and the most evocative olfactory profile of all time–fresh-popped popcorn.
After a year of closed theater lobbies and shuttered poppers, the simple, earthy aroma of bursting kernels of corn lightly glazed with butter and dusted with salt is all one needs to validate existence upon this mortal coil.
As children of the corn, popcorn was the central ceremony and substance of our evening ritual–the closest cultural equivalent hillbillies had to an oriental tea ceremony. It had everything–revered seed, approved vessel, anointed seasonings, timing, reverence, and sharing protocol.
First the cast iron kettle came out and was primed with hot oil over the burner. At the exact right moment a measure of golden kernels were spilled and swirled in a zen-like pattern. With giant hot pads holding the ends of the pan, and an ear close to the lid to hear the tempo of popping and measure the escaping steam, it came to just the right moment to seize the pan and dump it into the waiting black enamel roaster.
Then the master seasoner grabbed the dented, metal salt shaker from the counter and tossed and stirred the salt on top of the hot oiled corn.
Carried triumphantly into the living room, popcorn was the only food we were allowed to eat outside the kitchen. We kids gathered round the pan and stuffed handfuls of the crunchy goodness down our gullets, even as someone was in the kitchen starting the second bowl we knew we would eat.
There was never any leftover popcorn.
When I hit the road, popcorn went with me and sustained me. It was a cheap, easy snack that was always handy, always welcome. In the Pre-Microwavian Era, I carried a two-piece popper: the bottom half was the heating element, the top half a pan that nestled in nicely. The popper also served as a handy heating device for soup, hot dogs, and mac and cheese.
I met a fellow traveler who guided me further in the ways of the corn. He possessed one of those stirring kettles–a silver pan that sported a crank projecting from a wooden handle. The crank turned two paddles that gently stirred the kernels through the oil, evenly heating while keeping them from burning. The process of creating the perfect bowl of popcorn became as satisfying as actually consuming it.
Today, I am strictly an air popper – the ascetic of popping-dom.
The great challenge here is finding the perfect air popper. Modern versions do not heat properly or evenly. When my favorite West Bend finally melted into a yellow plastic blob, I sent out a call to find a suitable replacement. Believe it or not, the sister of a former classmate in the Midwest read of my dilemma and sent me her personal popper as a gift. I’m still trying to find a way of paying that forward.
Air corn does not have to mean bare corn. I like to drizzle my butter lovingly over the fresh, hot corn, thereby controlling the amount and distribution. The ideal is a touch of butter on each fluffy kernel, still an unrealized goal.
Air popping also allows experimentation in the realm of garnish. When feeling adventurous, I have embraced seasoning beyond NaCl–basil, garlic, oregano, onion, and black peppercorns.
Yet as I grow in age and experience, and as the world returns to its festive foods enjoyed al fresco, I find comfort in enjoying the snack in its elemental glory–a lovingly popped tender heirloom kernel from my secret Iowa supplier, a drop of real Texas butter, a crystal of Andean salt.
That is the power of popcorn, and I, for one, welcome it back in all its toothsome glory.