Food » Object of Desire

The magic of popcorn makers

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"Fire in the hole!" my father yelled. "Fire in the hole!" my brother and I gleefully shouted back, sensing danger in the kitchen.

This call-and-response ritual occurred most Saturday nights when my dad broke out the Dutch oven, invariably spilled Crisco on the hot burner and then fixed the best trough of popcorn I've ever eaten.

(I say this as a popcorn expert with impeccable popcorn bona fides: granddaughter of a popcorn farmer and native of the No. 2 popcorn-producing state, Indiana, which has a town called Popcorn.)

In the 1970s, my family bonded many nights over shelling popcorn kernels from the cob into a jar. Over the course of a fall season of M*A*S*H, the tender blisters on our thumbs turned to tough calluses.

Hot popcorn chaperoned the Saturday night movie and stayed through Sunday morning, when, a few hours before Mass, my brother and I ate the cold leftovers, including the butter-sopped, half-popped kernels at the bottom of the bowl, known as "old maids." In the summer, popcorn, dusted with salt, tagged along with the Monday Night Baseball game.

Over time, we dabbled with a metal popper to be used in the fireplace (#popcorn #fail) and experimented with the electric Buttermatic. Made by West Bend, it featured a reservoir for oil and kernels, plus a translucent orange cover that doubled as a serving bowl. Not bad, but it was no Dutch oven.

In the 1970s, companies embarked on many abortive attempts to make popcorn healthier by removing the need for oil. The result? A popcorn debacle. The Dark Ages of popcorn, as if the sun had dimmed for an entire decade. The 1,500-watt West Bend Poppery II, a step "up" from the original hot-air popper, drained all mirth from the Saturday TV movie and Monday's baseball game by producing desiccated, tasteless packing peanuts.

Since we had so many popcorn accoutrements—and homegrown popcorn—we never tried Jiffy Pop. However, I'll credit inventor Fred Mennen for his genius design: popcorn and oil in a self-contained pan covered with aluminum foil. You'd cook it on the stove, the top would expand like a blister, prompting kids to squeal, "Jiffy Pop!" In his late teens, my father, apparently prone to firestarting, accidentally set a Jiffy Pop ablaze at the Adams Hotel in Flint, Mich., and tossed the flaming vessel out an eighth-floor window.

In the '80s came microwave popcorn, a marvel of convenience, even if it did have a suspicious chemical aftertaste. But we now know that, like the fluoroscope or trepanation, microwave popcorn was ill-advised. It had a chemical aftertaste because it contained diacetyl, which gave the popcorn its buttery taste and aroma. Diacetyl was phased out in 2007 after being linked to "popcorn lung" in popcorn factory workers, whose lungs were scarred by the inhalation of chemical fumes.

No such perils with the Whirley-Pop. Made in Monon, Ind., it captures the stove-top magic of the Dutch oven without the fear of conflagration. The secret is in the handle, which, when rotated, turns a contraption that keeps the popcorn and oil moving and perfectly commingled. One to two tablespoons of oil (I use olive) and a half-cup of popcorn, and boom: every kernel popped. Start the movie.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pop 'til you drop."

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