Old maids and popcorn

Desperate to flee the encroaching violence of the Bay Area (two murders at local businesses we regularly frequented within a couple blocks of home: our liquor store and a good steak restaurant that had pancakes for the kids), we packed up and moved to my hometown of Warren.

My father, a long-time widower, was gracious to open his home to my family but five, including three active youngsters two and up, had to wear after not too much time. We eagerly snatched the first house for sale that met our requirements: basically empty, large enough and available.

I know it was priced in the low teens (a giveaway after California!) which gave us carte blanche to decorate. Wildly, if I may say so. OK – not everyone would cotton to a bright orange bedroom with black and white trim. We even painted the furniture as I recall. Picking paper and paints we’d never use again, we had a ball. (Should it sound too terrible, let me add that, once we were ready to sell, it was snatched up by the first man who saw it and at full price!) (Candidly, I always thought he’d have done better letting his wife see it before he signed the papers.)

While still living there, however, we fell into a happy routine. Once the little ones were settled for the night, we’d pop corn and a bottle of champagne. (No – hardly an extravagance. It was probably the cheapest drink option available.)

Thus began my lifelong love affair with popcorn. Back then it never occurred to me it might also be a healthy choice. Low calorie and high fiber. (Never butter or salt.) I’ve returned to it recently (but not the champagne) and do enjoy a bowl or so before dinner. If it cuts my appetite so much the better.

So what is this food I enjoy? Turns out there are five strains of corn, flint being the one generally used. Corn is planted specifically for this purpose, mostly in Nebraska, Indiana and, increasingly, Texas.

As an aside, I’ve heard that every ear of corn has an even number of rows, between ten for a small ear and fourteen for a large – but always even. Check for yourself next time.

The Mexicans were eating it about 10,000 years ago. It became popular in our country in the mid-1800s but accessibility really jumped with the invention of the popcorn popper. I can recall shaking it on a ga stove top, pan in right hand, lid in the left. Orville Redenbacher established his brand in 1970 with General Mills patenting the microwave popcorn bag in 1981.

What makes it pop? When the oil and water inside the kernel become heated, the water turns to steam (at 356∂ F. they say) which breaks the hull producing an “airy foam.” (I’ve never seen this.) That cools rapidly (I’d say) to set the crispy puff we’re used to.

Popcorn’s popularity increased even more during the Great Depression for it was definitely filling and cheap, costing just five to ten cents a bag. It’s interesting to realize that, while so many businesses were failing, the popcorn business and the struggling farmers who grew the stuff thrived. Sugar was rationed during World War II which seriously impeded candy production. Americans ate three times as much popcorn as they ever had before.

Special treats included Cracker Jack (peanuts in caramel-covered popcorn) and Kettle Corn (cooked with white sugar and salt, traditionally in a large copper kettle). Anybody else still stringing it at Christmastime?

For many, I’m sure it’s the go-to choice at the movies. When it was first introduced, theater owners hated it because they feared it distracted from the movie. Once they realized it brought in greater profits than their film, they were on board. You just might think twice before ordering a jumbo size after I tell you that a “medium-size buttered popcorn,” says a study I read on Wikipedia, “contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and fries, and a steak dinner COMBINED.” The accent is mine. And a small popcorn has 29 grams of saturated fat. All right, agreed it does taste good. Really really good.

Believe it or not (it is true) a company experimented with using real popcorn to replace polystyrene packing material. Couldn’t any of us have told them it was a poor idea? It’s inflammable, more expensive and attractive to pests.

And the “old maid”? That’s the name the popcorn industry gave to the kernels that didn’t pop.

Those Old Maids might definitely lead you to an emergency call to your dentist, a visit better to be avoided.

Susan Crossett has lived in Arkwright for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.


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