National Popcorn Day. That’s today. And if the past can be seen as any sort of precedent, such a momentous occasion will likely cause all sorts of curious statistics to surface. Like how the Aztecs included popcorn in ceremonial costumes. Or the ever practical advice that should you decide to stroll from New York City to Los Angeles dropping popcorn along the way, you’ll need to lug along 352,028,160 popped kernels, give or take a few old maids.
Popcorn deserves deference. But instead of pondering the larger role popcorn may play in our culture, why not consider the smaller, more intimate popcorn-centric moments that play out in our own timelines? When you think about it, for quite a lot of us, any day can be popcorn day. I know for certain it is in my life.
4 years old Dad comes home with a West Bend popcorn maker, the kind that sits on the countertop and slowly, mesmerizingly, stirs oil beneath a domed plastic lid that doubles as a dish. Life takes on new meaning.
5 years old The nuns at my older brother’s school denounce the CrackerJack tattoo on my forearm as “defacing the body that God made in his very likeness.” Seems pretty likely I’ll end up in hell.
6 years old Mom takes my older brother and me to the lake to escape the oppressive summer heat. They splash in the muddy water all afternoon. I, on the other hand, am content to sit on the beach and nosh on our tub of caramel corn. The scent of caramel and coconut tanning oil become inextricably intertwined in my mind.
7 years old A playmate brags to me that her family has popcorn every single night. I experience my first pangs of envy.
8 years old My dad takes me and my brother camping and surprises us with Jiffy Pop popcorn in a pseudo tin pan with a wobbly, too-short handle for holding over a campfire. He waits until dark descends and then proceeds to scorch it terribly, just as he did our toast that morning. We eat the bitter, blackened, coal-like popcorn anyway to make him feel good.
Later that year, I see a garland of popcorn in a store window and beg my mom to make one for our Christmas tree. She hands me a needle and thread. My thumb still bears scars from the countless pricks suffered attempting to needle my way through hundreds upon hundreds of kernels of corn. But our popcorn-bedecked tree? Breathtaking.
9 years old Ever health-conscious, my mom buys an air popper, the kind with the tornado cylinder that goes round and round, much like the ride at the amusement park that makes everyone sorta sick. I like it more for the heat it emits in our drafty farmhouse than for the drab effect it has on popcorn.
10 years old Grandma makes a batch of homemade caramel corn. I burn my lips snatching a clump as it cools on the counter. And then I snatch another and another and another, baffled at how something could be so crunchy and tender and sweet and salty all at once. CrackerJack is forever ruined for me.
11 years old Dad discovers he likes liberal amounts of Lawry’s salt on popcorn. I learn to speak up for myself and demand a second, unsullied bowlful all my own.
12 years old Parents sit me down to tell me they’re getting a divorce. They’d clearly thought through this life-altering event, having commenced The Talk by placing a bowl of popcorn before me. Pass the butter, please.
Dad moves into an apartment just blocks from the town movie theater. He and I stroll to the theatre some evenings not to see a movie but just to buy a tub of takeout popcorn so we can share it on the walk back to his place.
13 years old First hand-hold with the cute quarterback on the JV football team. I don’t recall which movie we saw. All I remember is waiting, waiting, waiting, and then suddenly the slippery feel of his fingers, thickly coated with fake butter flavoring, grabbing mine.
16 years old My mom, brother, sister, and I move to Phoenix, leaving behind my dad, his domed popcorn popper, and the popcorn of my childhood that was grown just miles from our farm. No brand of popcorn we find in the desert tastes quite right.
18 years old The only popcorn at the grocery store near my college campus is the microwave sort that’s ridden with ingredients I can’t pronounce let alone care to taste. I am concerned that college may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
24 years old While waiting for my boyfriend, who works late into the night on Capitol Hill most evenings, I rely on the plain and nothing-nasty-added microwave popcorn to tide me over until dinner. My studio apartment has no microwave and I don’t have the money or the counter space for a popper so I pop it at the 7-11 around the corner. Two young, cute cops frequent the store at the same time as me. They grin and holler “Popcorn!” each time they see me.
28 years old A new and charming guy, E, makes popcorn for me the proper way, in a big pot on the stove with ample oil and the lid slightly ajar. I realize this could be serious. The relationship with E, that is. It’s already a foregone conclusion that my relationship with popcorn is not ordinary.
29 years old Turns out E shares my love of not just popcorn but Champagne. One night it occurs to us to try them together. A revelation.
30 years old A well-intentioned but woefully misguided doctor cautions me that I ought to cease my love affair with popcorn. Probably a food intolerance, he murmurs, not even looking up as he scribbles notes in my file. Frantic research turns up a tender, hulless variety known as Baby White Rice. I pay for overnight shipping. Light, airy, and sweet, it poses no problem. Close call.
32 years old E’s still around. And he’s newly intrigued by kettle corn. He sets out to perfect his technique, seeking an approach that yields something not too sweet, not too scorched, but just right. In a moment of brilliance, he places a splatter screen over the pan rather than a lid so he can keep an eye on it. This precludes the need to balance the lid just so. It also affords him the unmitigated and boyish pleasure of watching the kernels pop, one by one. Yup, it’s serious.