Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Johnny California: Popcorn

 by JB

Q: What’s a movie without popcorn?

A: Nothing. This may be a matter better discussed between me and my therapist, but I think sometimes when I am on the fence about seeing a certain movie in a theater, the fact that this hypothetical screening would also include the possibility of some real movie-theater-popped corn might have swung my decision more than a few times in the past. Am I alone in this?

THINGS I DID NOT KNOW: Popcorn is one of six major types of corn, which include dent corn, used for cornmeal flour and high-fructose corn syrup; flint corn, also known as Indian corn or calico corn, the preferred corn for making hominy grits; pod corn, a mutant strain that is not grown commercially; flour corn, used, as the name implies, to make corn flour; and sweet corn, which is grown for human consumption as a vegetable because of its high sugar content. Sweet corn is the only corn harvested before the kernels are dry and mature. Source: The Wikipedia machine. CORN!
TANGENT: Since I moved a few months ago, one of my guilty pleasures on the television machine is The History Channel’s The Food that Built America series. It’s slow but a lot of fun. Earnest narrator Campbell Scott breathlessly describes the history of a given modern foodstuff while actors earning Guild minimum, wearing community theater-level old-timey costumes, act out momentous days in the life of Campbell’s Soup. I am convinced that every historical re-enactment is played out on one of only three sets, endlessly re-dressed: the Lab, the Kitchen, and the Boss’s Office. Once you start watching, you can’t stop. A recent episode was devoted to the "Popcorn Wars" waged between the nascent snack behemoths Orville Redenbacher and General Foods’ Pop Secret. (Spoiler Alert: The “secret” of Pop Secret was in the fabrication of the bag!) Readers can stream The Food That Built America on the Hulu machine.

The marriage between popcorn and the movies is long and storied. Original nickelodeons did not sell snacks, but most had a candy or treat shop right next door and patrons could snack before, during, or after the picture. According to fabricated film historian J. Periwinkle Wikipedia, “Because of its low cost, popcorn became a popular movie snack. In 1938, a Midwestern theater owner named Glen W. Dickinson Sr. installed popcorn machines in the lobbies of all his theaters. Popcorn was more profitable than theater tickets, and at the suggestion of a business consultant, Dickinson purchased popcorn farms and was able to keep ticket prices low.” According to actual film historian Stuart Hanson, "One of the great jokes in the [movie] industry is that popcorn is second only to cocaine or heroin in terms of profit."
AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: In my early years as a teacher, "Vooch", one of my film study students, was the swing manager at the Classics Theater chain in suburban Chicago. One Christmas break, my buddy Jim and I met Vooch at the now defunct Tradewinds Theater to videotape a little DIY documentary I titled “Behind the Scenes at a Movie Theater.” We followed Vooch around as he readied the theater for a snowy afternoon matinee. When we got to the concession stand, Vooch helpfully broke down the theater’s profit margin on snacks. Vooch explained that it cost the theater twenty-two cents for the ingredients to produce ten large popcorns (that includes the boxes) which it then sold for $50 (ah, 1988 prices.) Yikes! I remember suggesting on camera that if my students wanted to see their favorite theaters stay in business, they should make sure to buy A LOT of popcorn.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I will confess that literal decades passed before I caught up with Popcorn, the 1991 horror movie concerning a wild group of film students who take over a local theater on a weekend to stage a horror movie marathon. How could I have missed this? It contains all my favorite things: scary movies, Tony Roberts, film students, and popcorn. The reliably wonderful Joe Bob Briggs recently showed it on his Shudder series The Last Drive-In, and it was a revelation. I strongly suggest my readers seek this one out. My one quibble: not enough popcorn.
THINGS I DID NOT KNOW: I know I'm not alone in thinking that freshly-popped popcorn is one of the best smells in the world. I did NOT know that this is because it contains high levels of the chemicals 6-acetyl-2345-tetrahydropyridine and 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which are powerful aroma compounds that also occur in freshly-baked bread. Food and other industries use these chemicals to make products smell more like popcorn, bread, or other delightful foods that naturally contain these compounds. What else contains these compounds and reportedly smells like hot popcorn? Binturong, aka bearcat, urine! Which is why they make such great pets. Source: Wick E. "Petey." Ya, another very famous film historian.

STILL ANOTHER ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: My late brother-in-law John was the greatest popcorn maestro I have ever known. For John, homemade popcorn on the stove was both an art and a science, and I remember him always popping me a big batch before I would come over and babysit my niece and nephew. He used the same pot for decades, and it became nicely seasoned. I wonder now if it was ever washed, or would that just bring bad luck? John’s popcorn was, hands down, the best popcorn I have ever eaten. I’m happy to say that John’s son Joe has taken up the mantle of Family Popcorn Chef and has delved even further than his father into cook times, oil types, and unusual seasonings. The last batch Joe made for me was a religious experience, partially because I believe he used coconut oil to pop it. Gasp! Yum.
Coconut oil and other tropical oils were routinely used to pop corn in the 1950s - '70s, which yielded a delicious, though dangerous product. I still remember when the people behind “Science in The Public Interest” published their landmark report about the health risks of movie theater popcorn. Because of their use of plentiful, dirt-cheap tropical oils, movie theaters nationwide were serving up popcorn tubs with the fat content of nine Big Mac hamburgers. Sadly, things changed in the wake of public outcry and movie popcorn has never been the same. (Stupid "public outcry". What about MY very public outcry of, “Keep using delicious, flavorful COCONUT OIL, you magnificent bastards!”)

Although Orville Redenbacher Movie Theater Butter and Pop Secret Homestyle microwave popcorns are good and will do in a pinch, my favorite microwave popcorn is Paul Newman’s, all varieties. Since the pandemic though, it seems increasingly difficult to find ol’ Paul on the shelves of my local grocery stores. I have taken to ordering it online. Paul Newman’s microwave popcorn is delicious and the only commercially-available brand that offers the exact fragrance of the popcorn at my childhood theater, The Arlington. Opening a steaming bag of Newman's Own can transport me with Proustian efficiency to a far more innocent time.
NOTE TO THE "NEWMAN'S OWN" PEOPLE: Your Graces, I am a simple man. Please send me several cases of your shelf-stabilized product for free. Please? In my mind, Paul Newman was one of the best actors of his generation... and would approve of this plan.

According to The Popcorn Board, “With a majority of the world’s popcorn production in the U.S., it makes sense that Americans eat about 13 billion quarts of popped corn a year. That averages out to about 42 quarts a person. Popcorn is even the official snack of Illinois. Surprisingly, 70% of the snack is eaten at home; [only] 30% is eaten at theaters, stadiums, etc."

FINAL TIP: Want something to give your homemade popcorn an extra little kick? Invest in some Himalayan pink salt. It’s widely available and delicious.

I pause here, as my readers all scurry to make themselves a fresh batch of popcorn.

Confess. That’s where you’re all going. Good. I'll be right over.


  1. Well, i didn't expect waking up this morning and getting schooled on popcorn, but here we are. I'm not saying you influenced me in this, but i might get a bag of Orville Redenbacher from the corner store when i get off work 😁

  2. Hot damn! I'm going old school asap. Coconut oil and a big pot.

    1. Good for the soul (not so much for the heart…)


    Popcorn is hands down my fav snack. Good popcorn is untouchable. (Heck, for some time now ive felt that Garrets has been slowly pushing deep dish pizza to #2 for Chicago's most notable dishes). After tweaking methods ive reached a pretty solid approach to homemade corn and as such have all but eliminated microwavable popcorn from my diet (unless in a real pinch).

    Method: I use a West Bend Stir Crazy which is the common type where it heats the oil and stirs the kernels with a revolving metal rod. Its a pain to clean but effective maker. The first breakthru revelation was oil...as JB points out Coconut Oil is kinda key. Ive used the big mamajama tubs of yellow coconut oil found on amazon but also smaller jars of the white oil from grocery stores. It aint cheep but as this snack is once and a while, its worth it! I add the oil and let it fully melt (it usually stores in a semi solid state, like a paste) plus wait another minute or two. Then i add ~3/4 cup of kernels (more on those in a minute). Finally i sprinkle some Flavorcol salt on the kernels. Not too much as its REALLLY salty but its supposed to be an important ingredient to decent movie theater popcorn at home. (you can get a big box of it from amazon that will last forever). Once popped i prefer to eat it as is but there's tons of fun spice and faux butter options out there. go-to fav is probably Kernel Seasonings White Cheddar (or froofier versions of white cheddar from places like TheSpiceHouse).

    Kernel Talk: OK popcorn fans...my continuing hunt to find the best kernels hasnt established any clear winners. Do any of you have go-to fav kernels!?? Any ex theater employees know the preferred brand?? (My suspicion is Pop Weaver is high up there but ive not yet found quantities under 50lb bags). I will note that Kernels inexplicably do appear to not age super well..so if it sits on the shelf for a while after opening, i find the flavor/texture does diminish.

    Looking to y'all for other suggestions, recipes, toppings!? (ooo speaking of which..Kernel Seasonings Dill is weirdly fun and Tajin chili/lime powder will zest up your boring corn nicely)

    Peace .n. Popcorn!

    (PS: ok..quick story that kinda ties to popcorn..kinda...in the mid 90s my first time out of US for work was trips to Japan. On one trip i saw a HUGE godzilla billboard on the side of the building. Went there to find they were showing a new flick. This was bucket list for me so i bought a ticket and walked in. First observation was they sold beer (this was WAY before that was common in US). 2nd: a large popcorn was reallllly small. 3rd: the popcorn tasted totally weird..turns out it was kettle corn! (still pretty rare outside of fall festivals). Anyhoo i sat down in a huge empty theater and just before the movie started a young couple walked up..looked at me..looked at their ticket..looked at me..looked at their ticket and then went elsewhere. Odd. I explained this later to a coworker and he said i must have been in their seat. You see this was decades before assigned seating in US so i didnt know that was a thing. And in an ENTIRE huge empty theater i randomly sat in the exact seat that they, the ONLY other patrons, purchased. hahahaha. To date its one of my favorite movie experiences: seeing my childhood fav Godzilla kick Destoroyah's butt (such a great flick), in his country of origin, on a big screen, with a cold beer and sugary good popcorn. )

    1. In Hawai'i we eat "Hurricane Popcorn", which is popcorn tossed with melted butter, fried mochi called mochi crunch, and furikake seasoning, which is a dry rice seasoning with sesame seeds and seaweed flakes. Very popular! Second favorite - white cheddar :) I like that with popcorn you can go healthy or unhealthy.

    2. Great point about the healthy v unhealthy...my recipe method above certainly leans into the "oof not healthy" BUT i also will eat plain ole borring air popped stuff once and a while as a solid low fat/low salt option to fill me up.

      Thanks for sharing Hurricane Popcorn! Sounds fun and different and i happen to have furikake seasoning for my asian cooking. Will give it a try! (have to dig up some mochi). cheers!

    3. Now while I avoid work I'm watching American Gangster and looking at some popcorn recipes...there are some REALLY delicious looking gourmet ones! Furikake, chili flakes, dried pineapple, crispy bacon bits and minced Shiso...it sounds good and fancy enough to bring to dinners parties! Have to admit I was never a big popcorn person before but I'm gonna try this.

  4. For unpopped popcorn kernels, I like Orville’s. You’re right about shelf life because in time, the moisture content inside the kernels diminishes, and it’s the moisture that makes them pop! Flavorcol salt is really good.

    1. Hazaa! Thanks JB for the education..you'd make a fine teacher. (he he). Thanks again for another super fun topic, very much enjoyed the write up.

  5. This just in: my nephew recommends Amish Country Popcorn for stove-top use. You can buy a six pound bag on the Amazon machine.

    1. Thanks JB! ive had good luck with Amish Country before!!! You can also find it at some of the higher end grocery stores in the burbs.