Popcorn

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This column is not about fine cuisine. But this food has been good enough to sustain us in the Americas for a long time.

Popcorn kernels were discovered in a New Mexico cave in 1948 that carbon-dated nearly six thousand years old, and they have been used throughout history.

According to the Popcorn Board, which was formed as an act of Congress in 1998 at the request of the popcorn industry (and they say Congress doesn’t get anything done), Aztecs roasted it, ate it, and worshiped with it. Young women wearing popcorn garlands danced in 16th century ceremonies, and kernels were offered to gods in exchange for good fortune. A Spanish witness to one such ritual wrote:

“They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water.”
In northern Chile, kernels of popcorn found in burial grounds were so well preserved they would still pop even though they were 1,000 years old.

(By the way, the Popcorn Institute — a rival of the Popcorn Board — advises to never throw away those unpopped kernels. Toss them in a jar with a tablespoon of water, shake, and try again in a few days.)

My wife is a fan of popcorn, made in one of those stovetop poppers with a crank to keep it moving. Occasionally she tops it with shredded cheddar, and/or a few dashes of Frank’s. But if you’ve ever tried making cheesy popcorn at home, you might be stymied. The Popcorn Institute recommends placing freshly-popped corn on a sheet pan in a 350° oven for five minutes, topped with finely shredded cheese. After it’s baked on, it’s easier to eat.

But the best advice for making homemade cheesy popcorn is to not use real cheese at all. The Chicago Tribune responded to a reader’s exasperated query: “Your cheese-coated problems stem from your attempts to be a purist. Next time you drop into a popcorn shop, look around. It’s not likely you’ll find a block of cheese or even bags of grated Cheddar. What coats those kernels is very finely ground powdered process cheese.” They recommend stealing the powder bag from boxed mac ’n’ cheese, or buying some at a bulk food store.

Celebrity chef Alton Brown’s recipe involves cheddar cheese powder, shredded parmesan “cheese-food” in the green can, nutritional yeast and buttermilk powder.

Another popular recipe tosses fresh popcorn, from the microwave or stovetop, in a paper bag with butter, cheddar cheese powder, and a touch of mustard powder or salt.

The popularity of the microwave oven in the ’80s helped revive lagging popcorn sales, and the snack food industry has since exploded, like an ear of maize tossed into a hot fire, with every flavor imaginable. The nice thing about popcorn is that it is a high-fiber and reasonably low-calorie food – that is, until you start messing with it. When the Native Americans introduced it to the Europeans, these immigrants had it with milk and sugar – just like cereal.

Similarly, our cheese-y variations diminish the health benefits. Not to mention Chicago-style popcorn, mixing caramel and cheddar flavors, a flavor combination that has grown on me.

Your takeaway from this column should be to buy boxed macaroni and cheese, substitute real cheese when you make that, and use the powder bag for your popcorn.

I told you this wasn’t about fine cuisine!

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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