Recently I had a tryst with an old flame. No, ‘old flame’ is not quite right. You see, I’ve mindlessly used him many times over the years--even recently--meeting him most often in dark movie houses. On rare, more daring occasions we met in my bedroom, on nights when I admit I much more anticipated my latest Netflix delivery or guilty-pleasure TV show. He was always a second thought; an accompaniment; a reliable, cheap snack I held back from enjoying fully, lest I spoil the more respectable dinner waiting for me at home.
But this night was different. I was alone. . .insatiable, yet I longed for something more substantial, more fulfilling. . .more memorable. Suddenly, and for the first time, I saw him in a new light. The idea seemed so silly given our past dealings, that I needed some kind of sanity check before making the call. I did what one does when faced with such a crisis. I grabbed my phone, and desperately tweeted:
No one did (talk me out of it), but when shortly thereafter I received an inquisitive tweet from none other than the brilliant Amy Ephron (“What does homemade mean?”, “Did you grow and dry the corn, or do you just mean ‘not microwaved’?”, “Recipe, please?”), I knew I was on to something, and that there was no turning back.
It’s hard to say for sure how and when this idea started to form in my head. It would be reasonable to assume it got started when my partner Ian found a traditional stove-top popcorn popper at a thrift store. There were no savvy bargain hunters fighting for it—or even eyeing it—and I don’t think he paid more than a quarter for it. As Bed & Breakfast owners, we often find ourselves in that position: coveting a nostalgic item at a thrift store that has been rendered undesirable to the rest of society by technology and changing tastes. Who wants a vintage sewing machine, or phonograph player, or hand-cranked popcorn popper in their home? That would just be silly and eccentric. Fortunately for us, we are silly and eccentric, and it turns out people who aren’t still want to visit with these relics for a day or two, even if they don’t want them in their lives permanently. In other words, they’re perfect for a B&B.
In the case of the sewing machine and phonograph player, we don’t even need for them to serve any practical purpose; their mere presence in the corner of a room beside a rocking chair conjures the right image in the minds of our guests. The hand-cranked popper, on the other hand, we immediately put to practical use. Whenever we notice guests snuggled up in front of the fireplace, playing a board game, or reading a book in our living room we happily take the minute or so required to whip up a fresh batch of popcorn. I quickly began to experiment with flavorings, and then combinations of flavorings, each more exotic than the last. Truffle oil? Cocoa powder? Chipotle? Kahlua? Sure, why not? Admittedly, we were still, however, squarely inhabiting the ‘popcorn as snack’ paradigm.
It could also be that I was influenced by the recent, trendy use of popcorn as an ingredient in previously unusual ways. Anyone who’s spent time recently in high-end--and not-so-high-end--restaurants is sure to have seen this magical starch used as breading for pan-fried seafood or meat, as a garnish for soups or entrees, or as a crunchy topping for desserts. As an innkeeper, I can’t say I spend much time in restaurants these days, but the evidence of this trend is clearly shown on TV food reality and competition shows. But clever though this new use for popcorn may be, we’re still talking about ‘popcorn as magical ingredient’, as opposed to ‘popcorn as magic’. The difference is subtle, but important.
My favorite explanation for my newfound love affair with popcorn is a bit more mystical. If you’ve spent any time on One for the Table, you may have read about the Native American ghost we’re told inhabits our Inn. You see, the San Jacinto mountains, where the quaint little tourist town of Idyllwild now sits, is where the Cahuilla people came to escape the summer heat of the Coachella Valley. From the center of town Tahquitz rock overlooks, and according to Cahuilla oral history the rock traps an evil shaman of the same name, who still attempts to wreak his havoc today from his stony prison. In an unexpected twist, our shy apparition has a particular fondness for me that clairvoyants and paranormal investigators have described as everything from ‘protective guardianship’, to ‘a crush’, to ‘deep and abiding love.’ From my perspective, ‘protective guardianship’ certainly feels like how I have experienced her (they say men rarely know when they’re being flirted with, so don’t take my word for it).
There have been many times since arriving at the Strawberry Creek Inn, when I felt nudged and guided--or at least supported--in one direction or another. In the clearest example, the hairs on my back once stood straight up as I listened to a person I guess I would describe as a spirit medium, telling me that my not-technically-alive friend took pride in my obsessive interest in genealogy, that this interest was in no small part due to her influence. I remembered instantly how much I hated history most of my life, until a sudden interest took over me strongly and permanently after purchasing the Strawberry Creek Inn.
What does all this have to do with popcorn? Well, if you paid more attention in history class than I did, you may know that popcorn (and corn itself) is quintessentially American, a Native American staple for thousands of years that was later introduced to European colonists. It is said that the Wampanoag tribe brought a large bowl of popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast. Native people told stories of trapped spirits living inside each kernel of corn. When the spirit’s ‘home’ is heated, the spirit is enraged and escapes as a puff of air. As a testament to the importance of this staple to Native cultures, while there are many Native words for corn, each is a derivation or direct translation of the word ‘life’. Before and after European settlers arrived on American shores, Native people were enjoying popcorn seasoned with dried herbs like native sage. They also made popcorn soup and popcorn beer (I know, right?: Yum, and. . .Yum!). So you can see why the idea might be comforting, that my guardian/crush/suitor subliminally whispered in my ear one day, “A higher use for this trapped spirit would be most fitting on this sacred land.”
One thing is certain: you can’t argue with the merits of popcorn as a side dish or dessert. What could be quicker, or cheaper? This whole grain complex carbohydrate is also surprisingly nutritious, full of fiber and low in calories and sodium. Of course loading it up with fatty, sweet, or salty toppings changes the equation a bit, but another beauty of popcorn is that it carries other flavors so well (being, as it is, mostly air and mild-mannered carbohydrate) that not much of any flavoring is needed to make it scrumptious. And due to its low weight to volume ratio, popcorn is quite filling. It will always feel like you ate more than you really did.
Assuming you’re convinced at this point that popcorn deserves all of this fanfare, you’re probably waiting on a recipe. I’d like to encourage you, instead, to come up with your own signature popcorn creation. All it really takes is an oil with a very high smoking point (coconut and peanut oils fit the bill nicely) and your favorite flavorings (dry, sticky, and fatty work best together to ensure adherence to the kernels). If you’re going with microwave or some other instant popcorn--and I certainly won’t judge you for it—you don’t even need the oil. When choosing flavorings for your popcorn, think about what will complement your meal (or dessert), and go for interesting combinations of sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, and savory (umami). I’ll give you a couple of ideas to get you started, but promise me you’ll drop the training wheels and do your own thing, won’t you?:
• Grated coconut, lime zest, and honey—for that Caribbean craving
• Bacon bits and cheddar cheese—yes, popcorn for breakfast
• Rosemary and bleu cheese—with a grilled steak
• Celery salt, hot sauce, bleu cheese—buffalo style
• Lemon zest, fresh or dried dill—with fish
• Peanut butter—as Native Americans often enjoyed it
• Cocoa powder, orange zest—over ice cream or as a healthier stand-alone dessert.
My favorite combination—so far—combines salty, sweet, bitter, spicy, and nutty. That may be too much happening at once for some of you, but if you dare, here goes:
Sea salt, chipotle powder, orange zest, toasted & finely chopped hazelnuts, and agave syrup.
My favorite way to put it all together is to pour the freshly popped corn into a large paper bag, pour seasonings on top, and shake the bag vigorously until well mixed.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention any measurements. That’s because I’ve never measured, and I don’t intend to. It’s so easy to reach into the bag and sacrifice a kernel or two for tasting, that traditional recipes just slow things down. Whichever flavor you’re not getting enough of, just add more.
If enough of us do it, they can’t call us crazy. And no one will have to know you tried it—until after it’s a success. Till then it’s just between us, so please help motivate your fellow One for the Table readers by telling us which combinations you plan to try. Then come back and let us what worked and why.
And when the chi-chi restaurants and celebrity chefs catch on to our new culinary trend, let’s just smile at each other knowingly . . .and pass the popcorn.
- Rodney Williams is a writer, chef and co-owner of the Strawberry Creek Inn in Idyllwild, California.
by Chef Mark Shoup