Sir Pops Alot

Popped popcorn

There is really only one way to make popcorn. Well, I guess technically that isn’t true. There are, in fact, a bunch of ways to make popcorn.

You can take a pouch out of a cellophane bag, flatten it out and put it in the microwave. That’s a way to get gross tasting popcorn that frequently is scorched or burnt. You can put loose popcorn into a thingamy gig–a thingamy gig is one of those single use tools that you buy on a whim from Bed Bath and Beyond. If you have a big kitchen, it gets stored in the back of an underused cabinet. If you have a small kitchen, you regret buying it. Anyway, this popcorn thingamy gig also goes in the microwave. I think that people use it to avoid using any fat in the making of the popcorn. Creates a taste and texture similar to a styrofoam coffee cup.

Another way to get styrofoam-reminiscent popcorn is to use one of those air popcorn poppers. I don’t know if they still sell them. You used to put a knob of butter in the top of the dome so it would get greasy. Like greasy styrofoam. That’s what McDonald’s quarter pounders with cheese used to come in.

For people with bars in their basements, you know with a cool neon light and dusty bottles of booze because all they ever do is take beer out of the fridge? Yeah, those people. They might buy a small movie-theatre popcorn maker. It’s next to the arcade style pinball machine they got from Brookstone. They can even buy the fake butter for their groovy machine. Mmmm. How about that? They might have that singing mounted fish, too.

Then, there’s jiffy pop. I’ll just leave that one there.

So, to be honest, there may be many ways to make popcorn, but there is only one way that you can make good popcorn. It takes a heavy, 3-quart stainless steel pot, vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pot and some popcorn kernels. (Here, I can go either white or yellow, both have excellent results. I lean a little toward the white as they seem to have less moisture. But it’s not science. It’s not like I’m Kenji López-Alt).

I used to heat the oil and then add the popcorn kernels after a test pop. But that was stupid. I’d heat up the oil and then dump a third or a half cup of kernels which would immediately drop the temperature. Then I’d have to raise it up again. There was occasional burning, and, more importantly, this was very inefficient.

Now I put the pot on the burner set just above medium heat. I put the oil and the kernels in at the same time. I swirl the popcorn in the oil, to coat it. Also, because I like the swirling sound of the seeds on the steel. There’s a lot to like about making popcorn the right way.

Oh, and I place the lid on the pot. Don’t forget that. I had a pockmark in the middle of my forehead after a tragic popcorn popping incident. Fortunately it was when I was young, and it healed over with no permanent scar.

As the oil and kernels heat, I occassionally swirl it some more. My stove is kind of old, so it might not be heating evenly, and you want the popcorn to heat up together. Uneven heat is a big cause of scorched snack. This is to be avoided at all costs. I have heard that some people “like” burnt popcorn, but frankly, they are wrong. Burnt popcorn stinks and tastes bad. Believe me.

Be patient. Do NOT increase the flame. This is a mistake. I know this. So don’t do it.

After some intermittent undulations, it begins. Always with a single ding. The cymbal of the seed hitting the lid of the pan. It’s the sound of promise, of a beginning. I have sometimes questioned this miracle of corn and heat and opened the lid. My advice is to open away from your face, because after the first pop there may be a lull or there may be a a blitz. If the latter, shut the lid. Like NOW. (See scar above.)

What follows is the staccato pummeling of the kamikaze seeds throwing themselves against the pot. The start lasts about four seconds of single kernels popping before it becomes a cacophony of explosive corn, releasing energy and steam. It’s critical that you vent the lid, just a wee bit, to let out some moisture. You don’t want soggy popcorn. What I usually do is shake the pot–this is a good technique to force the seeds that might have been tossed to the top of the transformed corn back to the bottom of the pot where it has a chance to pop, too. Anyway, when I shake the pot, I let the lid clank around a bit and out comes some vapor.

Once the corn starts to erupt, you can’t walk away. The entire reaction is done in very few minutes, and you need to take it off of the heat the instant it’s done. Like, seriously, when it’s done. Don’t delay. Turn off the heat and pour it into a bowl. Now. (See burnt above.)

Some people add butter to popcorn, but I don’t see this as a big plus-up. It makes it greasy and doesn’t add too much, to me. But if you like butter, go for it. I won’t judge you.

Now I like to add two kind of salt. Regular salt shaker salt for brine and chunky kosher salt for crunch. It’s a bit more art than science. But the science does kick in if you use too much salt. I think it’s biology. Too much salt and your lips turn white. Like a chemical reaction.

But my secret ingredient, the one that I wouldn’t tell the boys no matter how many Friday nights I made popcorn for our weekly dinner and a movie nights and no matter how many times I caught them trying to sneak a peek, is ground black pepper. Not pepper ground from peppercorns. Nope. The already pulverized pepper in the red and white tin. I sprinkle on enough that you never realize it’s actually pepper, but there is some extra warmth in the bowl.

The popcorn is the best when there is some crunch, some sweetness from the corn and some salt. Maybe more than some. The oil provides the crunch and a little bit of flavor. I use a neutral oil.

Popcorn presents first in the air, its distinct smell fills your nostrils. It goes from my 3-quart stainless steel pot into my big stainless steel bowl. I think we call it the popcorn bowl. The bowl is much bigger than the pot, yet the popcorn expands to fill the bowl. More popcorn magic.

My next step, almost always, is to take the bowl into the other room and plop on the couch with a huge glass of water that I rest on the table. The TV is on, and there is, almost always, a movie to watch. It’s best when I put the bowl between me and a companion, and especially wonderful if the movie is funny.

And that’s really the only way to make popcorn.



Holly Golightly whistling for a cab. She surprised what's his name.

One day, when I was in my fourth grade gym class, I taught myself to whistle. Gym class was monotonous. I’d either stand waiting to get hit by a dodgeball or hang out on the sidelines after I was bounced out. This day, I filled my mental and physical time by trying to to use my fingers and my mouth to make a fife.

It took the entire hour, but I kept at it. By the end of the period I was dizzy and a little queasy from blowing out more than breathing in. And, this was the good part, I could shape my tongue under my fingers and emit a loud, powerful, high-pitched blast.

It happened gradually. I touched the tip of my thumb to my swear finger to make a ring. This was more natural to me than using fingers from two hands. I opened wide and stuffed my fingers shaped just so into my mouth, and I’d blow. At first, nothing happened. But I was bored so I kept blowing. Then, once, a rushing sound of air, not really a whistle but a sound that was precursor to a whistle materialized. I wasn’t exactly sure how it happened, so I kept blowing.

I had to take a break for a minute before I passed out.

Then, back at it. There was some particular way that my tongue curled just right under my fingers and a special way that I drew in the sides of my mouth, just a bit, to make the sound. Blow. Blow. Blow. A hollow and slight whistle!

More blowing and more contortions of my face and my tongue and my fingers. The sound was coming out more consistently and more whistlely. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I started to conform my lips around the sound. My muscles were wired directly to a part of my brain that wasn’t consciously processing as much as spontaneously adapting. And it happened. Very loudly. More than once. I got it!

I surprised myself, and everyone else. Even the drunk gym teacher. A 65-pound kid put her fingers in her mouth and unleashed a sound that pierced an active gymnasium! I was able to repeat the technique the next day, and the whistle was–improbably–all mine.

Even at double those sixty-five pounds, folks didn’t think it was me. I would wolf-whistle my delight at concerts. I would cheer on my buddies at their important performances, recitals, sporting events and graduations. They knew it was me, but strangers would whip their heads around and past me to see who was making that most impressive noise.

I could stop a cab in the rain with that whistle. Sometimes the cabbies would see me and drive on. It couldn’t be me. I’d signal again and they’d make a u-turn and assess me with admiration.

I used it to call my kids. If they were away–in or out of sight–or we were in a crowd, I could reel them in with the sharp, and to them, familiar sound of my call.

I could get the attention of a noisy room, not just via the pitch but also because of its incongruence with the deliverer, with the locale and with the setting.

Mine was a signal of the working class. It was of my roots. I liked to shock with it. And I was proud of it.

Then, I couldn’t do it.

I had the right side of my tongue excised to get rid of these very stupid squamous cells that decided to grow there. It wasn’t a bunch of tongue, but enough. The missing part makes me talk a little funny, but I am grateful to my amazing speech therapist who helped to minimize my mumble. I’ll tell you one time how much we we worked on enunciating the word “dick.” My choice, not hers.

For a long time after my surgeries, I had numbness in my face and neck. Over the next eighteen months, the feeling came back around my mouth, then through my chin and eventually everywhere. There is still a slight droop on the right side of my mouth. Everybody says I’m crazy, but I can see it. I draw my lipstick on a bit outside of my lip line to perk it up.

My surgeon is very impressed at the flexibility of my tongue. I saw him last week. The scarring is almost non existent. He says it’s very soft. And that’s very good.

I can’t chew gum on the right side of my mouth because it gets stuck there. I can’t get my tongue to roll it back to the other side of my mouth. Also, thin spaghetti noodles. Fat ones work so I stopped buying the thin. That’s it though. Oh, and I can’t whistle.

Every once in awhile, I circle my fingers, touching the tip of my thumb to my swear finger and try to get the sound to come out of my mouth. Sometimes it’s close. And last week as I was walking home from the subway, for the first time in two years, the hoot of a whistle came out of my mouth.

I was VERY surprised.

I couldn’t get it to happen again. I found myself getting dizzy as I strolled home, blowing, blowing, blowing. I’m thinking that I’m going to get it back. Yeah. I’m getting everything back.

Chop & Pop

tomatoes, avocado, scrunchions, secret cukes and lemon mint dressing.

I rummaged to the bottom of the vegetable bin. There were some of those cute Persian cucumbers. I don’t know why a recipe calls for English versus Persian cukes. They taste the same. They’re cucumbers. Especially from the grocery store.

There are six of seven left in the package. They are pretty skinny. I toss the one that is mushy and discolored in the center. I take three, trim the ends and quarter them before I run the knife up to the top, chopping into fairly even pieces. Kelly Clarkson is singing Since U Been Gone.

I stir the bastardized ropa vieja that I have on the stove.

Next up are the green onions. The recipe wanted red onions. I have them, but the scallions are more fragile, and anyway I like the crunch of the green parts. Same trim drill, but the tops of the onions are different lengths. It would barely waste anything if I cut them straight along the top, but I am in no hurry. I nip the bits of brown at the top. Before I chop, Pharrell and Daft Punk challenge me to Get Lucky. Dance steps ensue.

I’m interrupted by a friend who needs to go out. He really had to go so there was little time elapsed. I came back into the kitchen to a roaring Dave Grohl. He supposedly said Prince’s cover of Best of You at the SuperBowl was better than their original. I can’t help but think of Prince singing in the rain with that head scarf protecting his mane. I readjust my clip to keep my bangs out of my eyes.

The water comes out of the faucet fast. I am not sure why it sometimes comes out in an single stream and other times like a shower head. It’s shower head today. I soap up my hands to get back to my knife and wooden board. This playlist skips all the cursing in Gold Digger. I sing those words anyway.

I piled the onions next to the cucumbers in the white bowl. As I grab the plastic clamshell with the little tomatoes Shakira totally distracts me. I salsa back and forth through my kitchen galley, telling only lies with my hips. I wouldn’t even care if the neighbors saw, but they moved last week, so they can’t.

The first grape tomato gets sliced in half. They are very small, but I think that they look better if they are closer to the size of the other vegetables so I slice the rest in thirds. I pop one in my mouth. I pull out small handfuls, slice them and place them in the bowl. I keep going until it fills the space with enough red to break up the green. I eat two more and then slice two more.

I pulled out the large half-avocado. It was in better shape than I thought it would be. Sexy Back comes on. I cut around the pit. Someone said that it keeps better if you leave the pit in. It may have. I had a small whole-avocado, too. I didn’t think it was necessary.

My knife slid through the fruit. It was like a hot knife in butter yet still produced distinct squares that I piled between the tomatoes and the onions. The bowl was filled as Teenage Dream played. What a dumb song. I know it seems unfair to pick on this song versus the rest, but I don’t get Katy Perry. And, I get less why that cut allowed explicit lyrics. I woulda let Kanye finish.

There is a silly technique where you take a big pinch of kosher salt between your fingers and from a foot above the food “rain” it down. Somehow this distributes it better. I end up stirring the food anyway so it’s really unnecessary. I do it because it’s dramatic, and I feel like a celebrity chef. So I rained some salt and twisted some pepper.

I opened the cabinet literally above my head. I have to stand on the tips of my toes and really stretch to reach the mini-stainless bowl that sits on the top shelf. This prep bowl is well used, but in an inconvenient place because I don’t have anywhere else to put it in this barely functional kitchen. Taylor is whining about how We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. I’m unconvinced. This was on her last country album, even though most of it was pop.

I take the EVOO–it always cracks me up when I see that on a menu. I want to find the pretentious menu author and punch them in their pretentious author neck.

I pour the exact amount, in that it’s exactly the amount I poured, if only measured by my squinted right eye. I don’t have fresh lemon but a fairly fresh bottle of lemon juice. I squeeze about the right proportion to join the oil. I pick up my super cute baby-whisk. I ordered this whisk from either Crate and Barrel or Sur la Table. They came in a pair, which is good because I wore one of them out. Speaking of worn out, that Lumineers joint comes on. Hey! Ho!

The recipe, that I am not really following in any meaningful manner, wanted me to add fresh cilantro. I don’t have that or the dill they suggested to swap. I go through the spice jars twice. I even go to the way back of the cupboard where I have the extra bottles of valencia orange peel and smoked paprika that I bought by mistake. Nope. No dill anywhere. So I go for some dried mint. Seems like a fresh substitute. After I added it I remembered that I have some actually fresh mint on the back porch. Went too fast there.

Here’s my favorite part. The whisking. I get oddly excited by how quickly that little whisk emulsifies the oil and lemon juice. It seemed exceptionally fast tonight–like only three or four turns and it was like melted caramel.

I’m not ready to dress the salad yet, but worry that the avocado will discolor before The Spouse gets home. I shake a few drops of lemon juice over the concoction. I take the cookie sheet lined with discs of polenta out of the oven and flip them. Whoa, that oven is a little hot.

Lil Jon comes on. Seriously. Right then. Turn Down for What? In this case, turnt down to keep dinner from burning.