Very little in my life has as much meaning for me as popcorn.
Popcorn was Our Treat when I was growing up. Popped in oil in a saucepan, coated in real butter and salt. It was my mother’s treat first, and I would lie in bed, listening to the kernels hit the pan, and it was a comforting sound. Maybe because it meant she was there, keeping me safe, doing what she could to make me happy and healthy. Maybe—and more likely—it was comforting because it meant she was doing something to make herself happy. That was an extremely rare thing when I was growing up.
When I was older, popcorn, made as described above, was a family thing. We sat around a giant wooden popcorn bowl, passing around the hand towel, while we watched the earliest incarnation of Must See TV, when NBC first began dominating Thursday night with the Cosby Show. Later, when we finally got a VCR, it was movie nights on the weekends. Popcorn represented family togetherness.
Eventually, my mother remarried, and my stepfather made his one significant contribution to our household. Prior to this marriage, we poured the melted butter (melted in the popping pan, because we had no microwave) over the popcorn, salted it, and carried the salt into the living room with the bowl so we could add more when we got down into it.
My stepfather taught us about tossing. He made the BEST popcorn in the universe, and it’s to him I owe my own reputation for popcorn-making. You spoon butter over the popcorn, salt it, and then toss the bowl so it all mixes together. Repeat until the whole bowl is coated. Perfect!
Over the years, we switched to air-popped corn and butter substitutes in an effort to be healthier in our indulgences. Movie popcorn, special on its own because of the experience that went along with it, began to decline (it has never recovered). Microwave popcorn came along, but was rarely worth chomping. In 1991, my mother gave me and my then-fiancé her air popper. We lived in a pretty small apartment, and the popper—the kind that blows the hot air and the popped kernels out of a chute into a bowl—regularly shot hot, UNpopped kernels from the kitchen counter, across the room, through the bathroom door, and into the tub.
In 1995 we bought a better popper, one that kept all the corn in the container. For a long time it was sufficient, but I was really fooling myself. My mother would come visit, and I’d make ’corn, and she’d complain that it was hard in the center. She sent me this super-great popcorn from Connecticut that…turned out to be just as hard. Which meant the problem was my old popper. But I couldn’t find another hot air popper that didn’t shoot the kernels across the room.
So I said the hell with it. I started cooking it on the stove again, and it was wonderful. Light and fluffy and just right to collect the butter. But I now have a flattop stove, and shaking a pan on it isn’t such a good thing. So a couple of years ago I bought a new old-fashioned popper with the turning handle.
Nostalgia aside, what does popcorn mean to me now?
It means I really can make something unique to me that my husband and kids love and will always beg me to make. It means legacy.
It also means stress removal. On the worst non-crisis days of my life, I can snuggle in with popcorn and a book, and relax. Nothing else in the world can do this so easily. And in a world like ours, this is a really good thing to have available.
It means continuity. When I make popcorn, I feel my mother (now deceased), and I sense my brother way off in Texas, and the threads connecting us even when we don't talk for weeks and weeks.
It means I have to go make some right now. :)