Today is National Popcorn Day, they say. Who decides these things anyway? Is there some kind of national screening board that weighs petitions to designate a certain day of the year for a food (It’s also National Hot Chocolate Day), an attitude (yesterday was Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day), or an activity (it’s also Inspire Your Heart with Art Day)? Where do all these come from? Check out http://www.brownielocks.com/, http://healthfinder.gov/nho/, http://foodimentary.com/ for a eclectic sampling.
But I digress. Some people think that I suffer from major digression, but I’m just fine. Really.
We grew popcorn on the farm where I grew up. It started by my dad planting enough for our own use, perhaps four 200-foot rows in the garden, separated from the sweet corn to avoid cross-pollinization. We would gather in the popcorn in late October or early November, when the days were cold and the stalks were dry and brown. I loved shucking off the husks to bare the white, knobby ears, their pearly kernels hard and round and so smooth. I can remember kneeling in the calf barn in front of a galvanized washtub half full of ears of popcorn, content with my task of shelling the corn. Even inside it would be cold, and the task required removing gloves or mittens. I would start by rubbing two ears together to dislodge the kernels, which would rain down into the tub with a joyous sound. Once an area of the ear was cleared, I could rub off the remaining kernels with my thumbs, one or two rows at a time. After an hour of this work, my thumbs would be rubbed raw and red, but the reward would be a couple of quarts of popcorn, ready to pop. Well, almost ready to pop. There would always be some soft hulls from the cobs mixed with the kernels, but these were easily removed by pouring the corn from one bucket to another out in the barnyard, where the wind would carry away the hulls.
One year my dad came home with a red-painted cast iron contraption that looked like a small instrument of torture: It had a toothed wheel driven by a crank, a little hopper, and a clamp to affix it to a firm surface or board. ”What’s that thing, Daddy?” “It’s a popcorn sheller.” You fed an ear of popcorn vertically into the hopper, turned the crank, and the rounded teeth on the wheel dislodged the kernels as the ear spiraled downwards. The kernels fell into a washtub below, and the bare cob emerged at the bottom of the apparatus. This splendid example of farm mechanization technology was probably a hundred years old, but it certainly sped the process of shelling popcorn, and it also saved my thumbs!
We also discovered that the same sheller was quite effective at husking black walnuts, as long as the husks were reasonably dry. But I digress yet again.
For a few years my dad planted several acres of popcorn to sell. There was a company in town that packaged and distributed their own brand of popcorn, and they were happy to buy ours. Of course, this field was harvested with a tractor-drawn corn picker, and the ears were taken to town in a large wagon or truck.
My family was relatively large, besides my mom and dad I had four older sisters. With so much kitchen help, my culinary chores were practically nonexistent; my own chores were cattle- and yard- and tractor- and outside-related. I was, however, often tasked with going to the garden (if it was summer or fall) to get lettuce or onions or green peppers or vine-ripened tomatoes for the family meal. If it was winter, I would go down to the cellar and retrieve some jars of canned green beans or tomatoes or sour kraut, or a basket of potatoes.
But the only cooking task to which I was proudly entrusted was popping popcorn, usually on a Saturday night around the time Gunsmoke came on TV. We used a heavy cast aluminum pot, which I put on the stove, melted a nice dollop of—what else???—bacon fat, and when hot, poured in a measure of popcorn kernels and clapped on the lid. Within fifteen or twenty seconds the first kernels tentatively popped, rising to a crescendo, and then falling off as the last kernels were transformed to delicious, light little clouds. I would then dump out the popcorn into the large round bread pan, sprinkle salt and a little melted butter.
We used two main varieties of popcorn, white and yellow. I always preferred the yellow popcorn, which had a larger kernel, which popped bigger, and had a stronger corn taste.
A favorite winter holiday treat was popcorn balls. My mom would melt butter and corn syrup together, drizzle it over a washtub full of popcorn, and the then we would mix it with wooden spoons, quickly before it hardened. Traditionally we would butter our hands and form balls between baseball and softball size. These would keep for weeks in a cool place such as the basement pantry, but seldom lasted that long. Since you could burn your hands handling the hot mixture, we adopted a variation: After mixing, the mass would be compressed into a mass about 3-1/2 inches thick in a large buttered pan, and when cooled, would be cut into squares with a bread knife.
To this day I can’t eat popcorn without being transported back to my bucolic childhood on the farm. And every time I visit the Midwest, I buy several bags of popcorn kernels to bring home with me.