It’s been a late summer of feasting for me, between Houston Restaurants Weeks (can we just change the name to Restaurant Month, or Months if it keeps expanding?) and my sister being back in the United States and dragging us from Tex-Mex to chicken fried steak hangouts to Goode Co. for mesquite grilled shrimp. Although I did tempt her with a Maine-ly Sandwich lobster roll last week.
But in between all the fine dining and Texas staples I’ve been thinking about popcorn.
Yep, popcorn. That good old-fashioned snack that goes with movies like salt goes with pepper, or in this case butter.
Popcorn became an integral part of American diets around 1900 when it was sold by street vendors and blossomed during the Great Depression.
People have been popping and eating popcorn for centuries. According to the Popcorn Board (yes, there is such a thing and its web site is available in English, Spanish, Thai and Mandarin) the oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. Ranging from smaller than a penny to about two inches, the oldest Bat Cave ears are about 4,000 years old.
And popcorn was integral to early 16th century Aztec Indian ceremonies. Bernardino de Sahagun writes: “And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these were placed upon (the girls’) heads.”
Popcorn became an integral part of American diets around 1900 when it was sold by street vendors and blossomed during the Great Depression when five and 10-cent bags were one of the few treats many could afford.
The snack was also the first thing tested in microwave heating in the 1940s — and today Americans consume 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn every year.
Movie Money Maker
Of course, popcorn is an integral part of the movie theater experience. And, going back to the Great Depression, it became the snack that saved movie theaters. According to a CBS Sunday Morning report, the original movie palaces were elegant affairs with no food. When the depression came, the only way for them to stay in business was to lower the ticket price and offer snacks, like popcorn, that they could make more money on. To this day, the concession stands are where the profit is.
When I was very young, my parents would pop up a grocery sack full of popcorn, likely flavored with Morton table salt and margarine, and smuggle it into a drive-in theater for us kids to eat.
As a young adult, I liked nothing better on a rare weekday off than to take in a matinee. It didn’t take me long to realize that stuff coming out of the pump was not butter. In most cases it’s soybean oil with preservatives and artificial flavoring. Yuck.
So I started getting creative with toppings.
My favorite is to skip the fake butter and mix pickled jalapeños into the popcorn. A friend prefers to mix sweets in with her popcorn, usually adding a bag of M&Ms to her tub.
But you can put pretty much anything on popcorn and it tastes great.
If you have a sweet tooth, it’s hard to beat chocolate.
I miss the duck fat popcorn at the old Branch Water Tavern, but at home I usually just microwave a bag of plain popcorn, drizzle it with a little melted unsalted butter, sprinkle in a pinch of Fleur de sel and top with grated Parmesan cheese.
A dry packet of Ranch dressing makes a good popcorn topping as well, but why stop there? What about dried Hatch chiles, black peppercorn and lemon zest, soy sauce or truffle oil and ground white pepper? Maybe try some nutritional yeast or Old Bay seasoning.
Asian spices like furikake also make for great popcorn toppings as well as herbes de Provence and, of course, garlic. And for health nuts, there’s always ground up kale chips.
But if you have a sweet tooth, it’s hard to beat chocolate. You can melt some dark chocolate and drizzle on, or you can just run down to The Chocolate Bar and buy it ready made. Peanut butter is also good as is honey, although these can get a bit messy. Hint: If you don’t want to get your fingers sticky, eat your popcorn with chopsticks. This also works well if you are dousing it with tabasco or cholula hot sauce.
So get your popcorn and your favorite toppings ready. After all, October is National Popcorn Popping month. As if you needed an excuse to indulge.