MY LIFE - Popcorn

MY LIFE - Popcorn

Last Thursday evening as I was getting ready to hunker down in front of the TV to watch the Patriots play, I made a game-time decision of my own that involved popcorn.

Unlike some family members both past and present, all of whom carry the Powers popcorn gene, I am not really a popcorn freak. I am more what you might call a situational eater. On the rare occasions when I enter a movie theater, I need a bag of popcorn. Fully realizing that it will taste like crap and disappoint, I still have to have it. Even knowing that pound per pound it may be more expensive than caviar and nowhere near worth the money, I will shell out big bucks for the dubious pleasure of mindlessly stuffing it into my mouth as the plot on the screen unfolds. It has everything to do with the scent.

The second automatic trigger is football. As the pregame hype unfolds on the screen, I dash off to the kitchen to make a bowl of popcorn. Almost without fail, by the time the game actually starts, the popcorn is already eaten, but that’s OK. There was the game and there was popcorn.

Another weird thing about popcorn is that I even like it stale, another learned behavior that goes back to the old St. James School in Manville. Back then, the nuns used to earn a little extra cash by selling popcorn and popsicles for a nickel at recess.

Ninth grade was the big time, and as the upperclassmen we were granted special privileges, among which, at least with the modern young nun who taught English that year, was being able to buy and eat popcorn, right there in class, while one or another work of literature was being read out loud. Of necessity, the corn had been popped the previous evening and was therefore slightly stale by morning, To this day, the glorious memory of eating that little nickel bag of popcorn while listening to “Treasure Island” or “The Merchant of Venice” subconsciously lends stale popcorn a certain cachet that totally escapes the uninitiated.

For years, I popped corn at home in one of my stainless steel pans. Cover the bottom of the pan with a slick of oil, heat till shimmering, add the kernels to a depth of only one layer, put the lid on and shake the pan back and forth until the popping pretty much stopped. The problem with that was that because of how the bottom of the pan was made, it was always hotter around the edges and there were always black spots that needed to be scrubbed off from where the popcorn had burned.

Then, in the early ’80s, when the girls went away to college, I discovered hot air poppers. Cylindrical in construction, you measured the kernels with the little shovel-shaped plastic piece that covered the top, put a big bowl under the chute on one side, plugged it in and you had perfect popcorn with little effort and almost no clean-up. The only problem was that back in those pre-Amazon days, hot air poppers were only widely available at back-to-school time, so when my popper quit I was hard pressed to replace it.

I finally found one years later, but it was defective. It seemed maniacally way over-powered. I measured in the kernels, plugged it into the wall, and almost immediately it began shooting both red hot kernels and popcorn clean across the kitchen. All I could think of was Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory as I frantically tried to block the opening, batting stuff back as it flew out at me while I tried to reach around to pull the plug.

Then I found the perfect pan at a yard sale. A 3-quart heavy gauge aluminum saucepan that turned out perfect popcorn every time. I used it for years. The only drawback, and I know this may sound lazy of me, but to keep it in good condition required hand-washing and scouring after each use to prevent a buildup of that sticky brown stuff that can coat a pan when oil is heated to a high temperature. So when I saw a microwave corn popper at WalMart a couple years ago I was pretty excited. I tried it, I loved it, and I have used it for years. No muss, no fuss. Just toss it into the dishwasher when I’m done and put it away until next time.

I should have left well enough alone, but no. I went and ruined it all last week when I decided on a whim to bring out the old aluminum pan.

I cannot tell a lie. I was amazed when I began to eat what I had made. The popcorn looked a little different. It even tasted different. The individual pieces seemed denser, with more body. Heavier and less airy, with more chew to them. There was no comparison, and I’m not scientifically sure why, but the pan-popped corn was a whole different breed of cat, so to speak, and I am now being tossed on the horns of a dilemma, if you will pardon my mixed metaphors. Do I sacrifice taste in favor of convenience, or do I go back to scouring a pan and eating a better product?

Rats! I think that sometimes we may be better off just not knowing.

Rhea Bouchard Powers is a writer from Cumberland.