POPCORN, INDIANA

Yes, there is such a place. It’s a small town, unincorporated, about 20 miles south of Bloomington (home of Indiana University, one of Indiana’s two flagship state research institutions). Quiet, sleepy, bucolic—it’s even given its name to a brand of the iconic snack food (you may have seen Popcorn Indiana brand popcorn in your local supermarket).

AND WHAT OF THE SNACK FOOD?

The Midwest in general—and Indiana in particular—play outsized roles in the story of popcorn, that snack serving as both scourge (remember the war against movie theater popcorn, due to its fat content?) and savior (Air popped! Low fat!) for the calorie-counting cartels among us. Popcorn, a type of corn that puffs up when heated (thanks to residual water turning to steam) is not native to the Midwest. Rather, like other types of corn, it originated in present-day Mexico, from a grain called teosinte, the precursor to modern corn varieties (which, incidentally, looks nothing like today’s corn).

Today, the states producing the most popcorn are Indiana and Nebraska (they seem to trade off the top spot periodically). Nebraska is firmly in the Great Plains, Indiana solidly rooted in the Midwest, so Popcorn the Snack Food is proudly wearing its Flyover pedigree! But there’s more to the culinary geography of popcorn than just where it’s grown. The people are important too!

LOOK WHO’S POPPING UP!

Charles Cretors

While making popcorn is a relatively simple activity (apply heat and wait for the popping sounds to begin—and to end), producing it commercially, in quantities sufficient to feed numbers of people, is best done with some sort of automated machine. Manual machines were in existence, but they delivered inconsistent products. Enter Charles Cretors, the Chicagoan (but originally from Ohio) who created the popcorn maker (he effectively improved upon a peanut roasting machine, modifying it so that it could also pop popcorn uniformly and consistently). Cretors received a patent in 1893. Today, the Cretors company is still in business (and their offerings have expanded).

Glen Dickson

Midwestermer Glen Dickson didn’t invent the popcorn machine, but he DID have the brilliant idea of placing them in movie theaters! We can thank him for what is a seemingly classic combination–films and popcorn. Today, it’s difficult to imagine cineplexes without concession stands centered on popcorn. Indeed, the smell can be enough to entice even those who initially had no intention of eating to grab a tub before heading to the movie.

Orville Redenbacher

Born in Brazil, Indiana (near Terre Haute), the late Orville Redenbacher is certainly the face of microwave popcorn (although the company also produces plain kernel popcorn). From his ubiquitous bow tie to his stern but goofy black eyeglasses, native Hoosier and Purdue University graduate Redenbacher is probably the most iconic popcorn personality in the United States. His background in agriculture (and science) had Mr. Redenbacher experimenting with hybrids before founding his eponymous company. Although the company was sold several decades ago, the brand still bears his name.

THE MANY POPCORN CAPITALS IN FLYOVER COUNTRY

National capitals, state capitals,… popcorn capitals? No fewer than six Midwestern-ish towns call themselves the “Popcorn Capital of the World”: two in Indiana (Valparaiso and Van Buren), plus one each in Illinois, where it’s the official state snack food, (Ridgway), Iowa (Schaller), Ohio (Marion), and Nebraska (North Loup). Clearly, America’s beloved snack has its heart and soul in the middle of the country!

POPPING YOUR OWN!

Although many of us enjoy our popcorn from the microwave, it’s really not that difficult to make on the stovetop. All you need is oil (coconut or peanut, with high smoke points, seem to work best—canola seems to have a fishy aftertaste for many people and olive oil’s flavor isn’t really compatible with corn), popcorn, and salt. You can certainly add some melted butter to flavor your popcorn after it has popped. Indeed, you can add a variety of flavors–parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast, if you’re vegan), dried herbs, chili powder, whatever strikes your fanciful taste buds! Here are some instructions for making popcorn for 1 or 2 (can be doubled).

Heat some oil (about 2 tablespoons) and some fine salt (about ½ teaspoon) in the bottom of a saucepan (2-4 qt. size, use the smaller for this “recipe”, the larger if you double it) over medium-high. When heated, add 3-5 kernels of popcorn, cover, and wait until they’ve popped. Then add about ¼ cup of popcorn (I like Lady Finger), take off the heat for about 20 seconds, then return to the heat with the lid of the saucepan slightly ajar (to allow the steam to escape—you don’t want soggy popcorn!). When the popcorn kernels slow down their popping (a few seconds between pops), take off the heat and dump into a bowl. Add more salt and some butter, if desired, or create your own flavorings.

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My Kitchen Sanctuary, My Kitchen Temple

Why do so many of us spend time in our workshops or craft rooms or gardens or, yes, kitchens? A longing, perhaps even a NEED, to make something physical. Many of us toil in the knowledge economy (as if baking a loaf of bread doesn’t require knowledge). We write papers or grade them, we balance ledgers, we sell stocks or software. So we carve and paint and plant and, yes, cook. Each act of creation turns us into God. We use our hands and transcend our quotidian human existence in the (realized) hopes that we have gone somehow beyond, even just by a nanometer, to bring forth something new in the world. Sure, we may bake that chicken casserole every Thursday, but it’s never really, exactly, the same. The chicken thighs may weigh a little more or a little less than last week’s. The onions might be oblong, where they were nearly spherical the last time we cooked this. Our senses continue to refine and we decide that sprinkling parsley on top will improve the flavor. In that respect, we home cooks have much in common with the wood carver who, using a new, different piece of wood, may carve the “same” spoon or the “same” toy, but (s)he knows it’s not an exact replica of the previous one. A close inspection—maybe not even a close one—reveals differences, however minute. Yes, our creative godliness is in the details.

We all should have places of respite and places that, regardless of religious or spiritual belief or lack thereof, evoke special feelings in us. For me, it is my kitchen. This is where I create, feel gratitude, share, reflect. The act of cooking, however simple or complex, brings me closer to humanity, a feeling of connection with the world and with the universe. It brings me closer to the farmers, the growers, the producers of my food. The acts of chopping, sautéing, scattering of herbs—the use of my hands—underscores what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that we, as humans, long to create objects and things, that are touchable, tangible.

In the sanctity of the kitchen, for those of us who find cooking somewhat of a contemplative practice, we may find, like an odd but welcome bolt of lightning, sudden realized peace and even joy. I recall washing dishes on one of those bitterly cold, windy Indiana nights, wrist-deep in soothingly warm, soapy water while standing in my kitchen, the warmest room in my house, and suddenly feeling an intense wave of happiness and calm. I didn’t know why, then, and it didn’t matter. I still don’t know why and it still doesn’t matter. Perhaps it was just gratitude for what I had—solid indoor plumbing and a shelter from the elements, elusive to some. I don’t know. But I felt peace. This wasn’t the only time I felt such peace in my kitchen, my sanctuary. I’ve felt it tipping and tailing green beans, a tedious task, as I prepared to cook a batch of loubia, sensing connection with the grower of those beans (in this case, organic farmer extraordinaire Wendy Carpenter of Modoc (IN)’s Christopher Farm).

If my kitchen is my sanctuary, my kitchen is also my temple. On Saturday mornings during the summer, I bicycle to my local weekly farmers market (Minnetrista), arriving as close as possible to the opening 8:00 AM bell. I inhale the atmosphere and the activity, perusing the unusual garlic varieties and eggplants and summer squash. I chit chat with the vendors and friends I encounter, buy what appeals to me or inspires me that week, carefully arranging my wares in my backpack (eggs at the bottom, tender greens and fragile tomatoes at the top). Then I cycle off for a post-market cappuccino, either at The Caffeinery (if the morning is leisurely) or Starbucks (if time is tight). Park myself on an outdoor chair, turn my phone off (completely—no vibrate or silent mode), and for the next 20-30 minutes, I watch the world. And then I head back home, putting the bicycle in the garage and walking into that temple of mine, the kitchen. Off comes the backpack and I unpack—and display—everything I bought on my kitchen island, a veritable offering to whatever culinary gods might be watching (of course, being digital times, I dutifully post a picture, with description, on Facebook). What grinning! What happiness! And then, to complete the Saturday circle, I cook.

Market produce inspector

I don’t really have a good conclusion for this post, other than to hope and wish that you all have your own personal sanctuaries and to let you know that I’ll be returning to this blog, albeit not necessarily on a regular basis (generally with posts about interesting food-related topics about the middle of the country, less often with personal essays). In the next few weeks, I’ll post a recipe for my cherry-sage bread, featuring dried Michigan sour cherries and Indiana sage (“Indiana” because it’s from my garden). There is much to know about the Flyover culinary world and so much to discover. Peace.

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