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.

Share

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.

Share

Midwest Meets Upland South—Mitten Reserve Cider

On Craft Cider

To say that craft cider is having a moment would be a bit of an understatement. While the craft beer movement is now decades old, well established, and even bubbling up in places one would not normally associate with a craft-anything movement (my small city of Muncie has four breweries that I know of). Yes, I do know that there is a difference between craft breweries and microbreweries, though offhand I can’t remember what that difference is. I’m not much of a beer drinker, so I should be forgiven my lapse.

Anyway, craft cider, especially of the apple variety, is definitely coming into its own. Perhaps it is a nod to the past—the long-ago past, when presidents and the hoi polloi would drink cider as a matter of course. Thomas Jefferson made sure to plant apple trees specifically for cider on the grounds of Monticello. Hard, or fermented, cider was a staple drink back in the early days of the United States. It fell out of its eminence in favor of other beverages, including beer, but now seems to be making a comeback in these DIY, locavore, culinary exploration times.

Sweet, or nonalcoholic, cider never really went away, making its annual appearance at orchards and supermarkets alike during apple season. However, the cider I’m referring to, the alcoholic variety, is developing a really strong following these days. Hard cider can be both sweet (think Woodchuck Amber), semi-dry (which is still on the sweet side—try Rhinegeist’s Semi-Dry) or dry. I suppose I should also add a fourth category—unusual (read: tending toward funky). In short, there’s a cider for everyone, from the Cosmopolitan/Appletini/Strawberry-Lemonade Vodka drinking set to those with very adventurous palates.

The Mitten Reserve

Enter Virtue Cider, a cidery just outside of Fennville, a quaint and arty town in southwestern Michigan. Virtue produces a number of ciders, both semi-dry varieties as well as drier ones, including the decidedly for-the-daring-palate Sidra de Nava (which might appeal to fans of sour beer). And Virtue uses 100% Michigan apples in its ciders. That’s a big plus for me, because I think Michigan apples are truly the best apples in the US! Yes, Washington apples get all the love (or at least all the publicity and marketing), but if given a choice in a supermarket, I always opt for the Michigan ones. Washington apples probably taste delicious—in Washington (or thereabouts). Given that I’m in Indiana, Michigan apples don’t have to travel far, so I’m probably getting a better product.

Okay, this isn’t a review of the Virtue Cider facility or a rundown of its products (maybe some other time). Rather, I’m here to discuss a particular Virtue offering—The Mitten Reserve (2016) as an introduction to Virtue (and Flyover ciders). Let’s look at the name. Surely you remember from your middle school or high school geography 1(assuming you’re in the US), that Michigan is divided into two parts: the Upper Peninsula (home of pasties and Yoopers) and The Mitten, so named because of its physical resemblance to a mitten.

Back to the cider. The Mitten Reserve is a dry cider, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels (just like The Mitten) for about one year. The “Reserve” part comes from the blend of ciders used. I will say that this cider is definitely bourbon-forward! It’s smooth, with hints of warm spice (think of muted apple pie spices, like cinnamon), as well as butterscotch. And, of course, apples. The alcohol content of this particular cider is 8.4% alcohol by volume, fairly high for a cider. As far as food pairings, this is the cider to drink with bacon or ham. Vegetarians might enjoy this with a slice of toast slathered with onion jam, grilled pineapple, or even a piece of honey cake or lebkuchen, something with a hint of sweetness.

Midwest Meets Upland South

The Upland South (Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, even parts of southern Indiana and Ohio) is distinct from the Deep South, with Kentucky and Tennessee probably forming its core. Of course, Kentucky is known for bourbon—perhaps it most well loved “export”. So, aging the Michigan apples in bourbon barrels is a sort of culinary marriage between the two, the Kentucky whose distilling skills have rendered it as a bourbon paradise, and the Michigan, with its unparalleled microclimate giving it some of America’s best fruit. And now that marriage is nicely expressed in The Mitten Reserve!

1You didn’t have a class called “geography in middle and/or high school? Ah, one of America’s educational failings–a discounting of vital content in favor of “teaching to the test” (and there isn’t any geography on the test).

Share

On Chicken and Values and Mindfulness

The Tale

I threw a chicken into the garbage today. And I felt awful about it. Through my own carelessness and inattention, I took a frozen chicken out of my chest freezer and forgot to put it back, leaving it on the cement floor of a hot garage for twelve or so hours. It was largely thawed, but while my heart wanted to go ahead and just roast it, my head said to take the well-Googled advice and discard it, thus avoiding a chance to catch food poisoning.

About the Chicken

First, let me begin by stating that I am not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. I understand the ethical underpinnings of such a diet, but I am an omnivore who has no issues with eating animal flesh and other animal products. If you are one, I applaud your finding a diet that dovetails with your convictions. But my convictions differ from yours.

Let me tell you about this chicken, though. It was humanely raised—pastured and able to peck in the dirt for bugs and slugs, just like a chicken should. It was locally raised as well, as I went to the farm to buy it. And therefore, it cost more than the factory chicken found at supermarkets. The cost is something I’m willing to pay—I’d rather pay more for high quality food and buy less. This is not a value judgement against you if you purchase supermarket poultry. Remember that food is my “thing”. I spend a bit more to buy crisp organic butterhead lettuce from a local organic farmer than my 99-cent iceberg loss-leader. I would much rather buy a small piece of unusual and artisanal cheese that retails for $29.99/lb. than buy pounds of pre-shredded industrial cheese. But I rein in my spending elsewhere—I don’t buy many clothes, I cook my own meals rather than going out to restaurants frequently, and I don’t need the latest electronics. I’m childfree, so I don’t have to worry about feeding a family. I’m not judging you, so please don’t judge me.

Chickens, Values, Mindfulness

So what bothered me about throwing this chicken in the trash? It wasn’t the money—I am fortunate to be able to afford this and can easily get another without sacrificing my monthly food budget. No, it was something else—I respect my food and I respect the producers who have provided it for me. In this case, it was an affront to my values caused by my own carelessness. That chicken was slaughtered–for nothing!–because of my negligence. The hard work and labor of the farmers who raised it, a lovely young couple making a go of it on a local organic farm, was for naught because I was not paying attention. It’s not about the money—it never is and never was. It was, instead, a disconnect from my values.

In a way, I am grateful to that chicken for prodding me to focus on mindfulness, the act of paying attention and being in the moment. I vow to be more present and I vow to show more respect for the food that nourishes me. And I vow to treat the next chicken with more care.

Share

Mayan Jaguar Lettuce Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette

The Mayan Jaguar lettuce lends itself to salads with strong, sharp flavors. Add some chicken (or more cheese, if you’re a vegetarian) and you’ve got a main dish salad. Note, this will serve 6 as a side dish

What You’ll Need

  • knife and chopping board
  • whisk
  • immersion blender, aka hand or stick blender
  • measuring cup and spoons
  • large bowl
  • salad tongs

Ingredients for the Salad

  • 1 head Mayan Jaguar lettuce (or other romaine)
  • ¼ cup blue cheese, crumbled
  • ¼ cup walnut pieces, toasted
  • 1 medium carrot, shredded

Ingredients for the Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2/3-3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp walnut or regular Dijon mustard
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

How to Make the Vinaigrette

  1. Pour the vinegar into a bowl or tall container and add the salt. Whisk until the salt is dissolved
  2. Add the mustard, shallot, oil, and pepper. Using your immersion blender, blend the ingredients until emulsified and well mixed.
  3. Taste and add salt or pepper as necessary. The vinaigrette will keep, refrigerated, for a week.

How to Make the Salad

  1. Add the salad ingredients to a bowl.
  2. Toss with the about 1/3-1/2 of the vinaigrette. Add a little more if you like it more fully dressed.
  3. Serve immediately.
Share