• Popping corn is a family ritual. — Photo by Phil Houseal

Doctor of popology

Full House

Last Saturday night, my three-year-old granddaughter asked for a snack of popcorn.

“Who do you want to make it?” asked her mom, knowing full well the answer.

“PopPop!” came the response, and I was on deck.

PopPop is my “grandpa name,” bestowed by her when she was a year old. I was holding out for “Thor” or “Greyhead The Wizardmaster,” but she had other plans. I was the designated popcorn maker. I’ll never forget the night she stood before me, looked into my eyes, and said, “Pop pop.”

Whether she was asking for a snack or christening me, it didn’t matter. The name stuck.

And I wear it proudly, because I consider myself master of the corn. Popped corn is the granddaddy of all finger foods, the heart of a party of one or a theaterful.

The legend goes back to Native Americans, who startled pioneers with the magical cob that burst into white, fluffy clouds they could eat with their pemmican and squash.

Growing up in Iowa, we popped corn on the kitchen stove, dumping it into a large roasting pan which passed around the laps of my brothers and sisters sprawled on the floor watching “The Twilight Zone” (the original series, not reruns).

When I left home to hit the road, popcorn rode with me. It was a cheap, easy snack that was always sustaining. In the Pre-Microwavian Era, I carried a two-piece popper: the bottom half was the heating element, the top half a pan. The popper also served as a handy warming device in which I heated soup, boiled hot dogs, and made mac and cheese.

When I had my own place, I advanced to a stirring kettle. This was a silver pan with a wooden handle and a crank. The crank turned two paddles that gently stirred the kernels through the oil, evenly heating them while keeping them from burning. The process of creating the perfect bowl of popcorn became a Geisha-like tea ceremony — setting the right heat, continual shaking, and steady cranking as the kernels began to explode, then removing the pan from the heat at the height of poppiness and dumping the corn steaming into the waiting wooden bowl.

Today, I am strictly an air popper — the ascetic of popping-dom. Popping corn with hot air also has its rituals. One must add the raw kernels to the popper boldly and generously in order to avoid escaping seeds (premature pop-ulation). Then there is the proper positioning of the receptacle to capture stray kernels, minimizing collateral cornage.

Air corn does not have to mean bare corn. I like to drizzle my butter lovingly over the fresh, hot corn, thereby controlling the amount and distribution. The ideal is a touch of butter on each fluffy kernel, but that is still an unattainable goal.

In popping corn, size does matter. Where I once coveted large fluffy kernels, I now know the exquisite sweet nuttiness of tiny, white, hulless, ladyfinger popcorn. It is raised by the Amish in rich Iowa soil. I used to smuggle it back in the spare tire compartment, but now I order it by the case from a secret source.

Then there is the whole aspect of garnish. Over the years I have experimented with basil, garlic, oregano, peanuts and chocolate chips. But I always come back to the basics. I find comfort in enjoying the snack in its elemental glory: a lovingly popped delicate kernel, a drop of real butter, a grain of sea salt. Pair with a tumbler of rye, and we have entered snacking nirvana.

It’s good to be PopPop.

Phil Houseal is a writer and owner of Full House PR, www.FullHousePR.com.

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