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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It’s Better with Butter

My Favorite Fat

Butter had been removed from the list of Worst Dietary Offenders some time ago. I’d certainly done my time in the Low Fat Prison System. But much research since then indicates the benefits of fat (and yes, your body needs fat) as part of healthy diet. But as much as I love a good olive oil, it doesn’t hold a candle to my favorite fat—good, delicious butter! That’s great, because I certainly missed it!

When I talk of butter, though, I DON’T talk of mass-produced varieties, the kind sold in your supermarkets and trumpeted as a loss leader during holiday baking season (which, by the way, is rapidly approaching!) No, I’m talking about creamy, high butterfat varieties, preferably cultured. Indeed, favorites of mine include Organic Valley’s Cultured Butter or their Pasture Butter, though the latter isn’t cultured. Well yesterday I made an acquaintance with Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. Suffice to say, I am in major Flyover Foodie crush mode!

Because Everybody Needs a Little Culture!

So, what exactly IS cultured butter? No, it doesn’t mean that the tub has a subscription to the symphony and reads literary classics. Rather, it’s butter to which some cultures (like the cultures one finds in yogurt) have been added, either naturally from the bacteria present or from an external source. Cultured butter, common in parts of Europe but not in the United States, has a slight tang to it, courtesy of those flavor-enhancing cultures. Your standard supermarket butter isn’t going to have this.

A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!
A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!

Enter Tulip Tree Creamery’s Butter

Tulip Tree Creamery, located in Indianapolis, is a relative newcomer to Indiana’s cheese landscape, having been established in 2014. But don’t assume that this “baby” is a baby! Tulip Tree Creamery is the brainchild of Fons Smits, whose cheese pedigree includes Cowgirl Creamery (Point Reyes Station, CA), Trader’s Point (Zionsville, IN), and Ludwig Creamery (Fithian, IL). The charming Mr. Smits, whom I was fortunate enough to meet, took time to answer my questions. At some point in the future, I’ll write a full blog post about Tulip Tree, though given my current schedule, I can’t say when that will be!

So, the butter. Tulip Tree is not a farm, but they source their milk (and the attendant cream) from a family farm located about 50 or so miles south in Seymour, Indiana. This farm refrains from using antibiotics or growth hormones. The butter produced by Tulip Tree is an artisanal product, traditionally crafted. The butter, besides being marvelously delicious, is truly a seasonal product, an exceptional expression of the cows’ diets. During the milder seasons, the milk reflects a diet of pasture greens. The cream in this luscious product is enhanced by the addition of sea salt, generating butter that is especially addictive. Yes, I can eat this plain!

And Eating the Butter?

Well, I haven’t gotten beyond eating the bread on butter (plain or with a slice of Tulip Tree’s beer cheese). Okay, I lied—I have also licked it off the knife! Anyway, I think this is a butter that is best enjoyed simply, with bread or perhaps garnishing some steamed broccoli or asparagus. I think it would be a shame to use this in a way that would mask the rich flavor of this butter.

Readers, you owe it to yourself to try Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter!

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Down on Main Street (with apologies to Flyoverian Bob Seger)

Diner Culture

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Okay, diners aren’t unique to the Midwest and Plains. Indeed, diners were a staple eating destination when I lived on the East Coast. Additionally, some famous diners can be found on the West Coast (e.g. Rae’s Restaurant). So it appears that The Diner is an integral part of American culinary culture.

What Is It About Diners Anyway?

Simply stated, it’s the food. Honest, unpretentious, leveling-of-the-playing-field food. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, sausage, pancakes, coffee—the great equalizers. There isn’t any need to impress or up the ante with fermented artichoke reductions or hand-crafted miniature watercress-and-olive latkes, to say nothing of the odd foams found on the menus of molecular gastronomy eateries. No, the diner—which clearly has a solid foothold in the hearts of Americans—may well be one of the most endearing (and enduring) landmarks on the American gastronomic landscape. People from all walks of life can find themselves seated in the booths or counter stools at a beloved local diner.

Maybe the “Local” is the Key?

To me (and I’m the arbiter of Midwestern culinary geography on this blog!), a good diner needs to be part of a local community. And to me (again!) it needs to be independent. Yes, IHOP has its place—I eat their Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes, loaded with syrup but no butter, the night before running a half-marathon almost as a religious rite, a conjuring of the gods so that I can finish the race. But IHOP still has the chain restaurant feel. It may be IN a community, but it is not OF the community. The profits go to wherever IHOP (or Denny’s or Waffle House) is headquartered. But the money generated by a beloved local place? Well, that STAYS local!

Main Street Diner in Richmond Indiana

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I recently had a late breakfast at the Main Street Diner in Richmond, Indiana, the county seat of Wayne County. This charming restaurant is small in size and big in delight. There’s a definite retro vibe, with old-fashioned counter stools and comfortable booths. Exposed brick walls and a fifties-look clock (Coffee!) add to the nostalgic feel. In short, I had landed in True Dinerland. I felt welcome in this independent eatery from the time I stepped inside.

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Well, the service was friendly. Our waiter took our drink orders and gave us time and space to peruse the menu which, while not extensive, covers all the basics one knows and loves about breakfast; they serve lunch as well (the place is open from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM), but since my dining companion and I were there at 10:00, it was breakfast food for us. The service was pleasant and attentive, without being overly solicitous or hovering. We placed our orders and waited for it to be prepared (and yes, you might wait a little because this is fresh, not from some SYSCO cartons in a freezer).

I’d read some reviews online and, being a pancakes person, ordered the sweet potato pancakes with a side order of bacon (crispy!) My dining companion ordered the special—eggs, hash browns, biscuit and gravy, and bacon. When the food arrived, I was first surprised by how substantial the portions were! The bacon arrived crispy, just as I’d requested. The sweet potato pancakes—a stack of three—were flecked with actual, identifiable bits of sweet potatoes. The pancakes were also quite thick, almost double the thickness of the ones I’d get at IHOP. Because pancakes need syrup (and I sometimes refer to them as syrup reservoirs) , the Main Street Diner supplied the syrup in a small ceramic pitcher set alongside the plate with the pancakes and bacon. I found it to be a really nice touch. The pancakes were subtly spiced, which complemented the sweet potato while not masking its flavor. The bacon was a deliciously salty, fatty counterpart to the carbohydrate-rich hotcakes. I was certainly satisfied with my meal and I will definitely be making a return trip (btw, Muncie, where I live, is about an hour’s drive north of Richmond).

Sorry about the blurriness of the picture--I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!
Sorry about the blurriness of the picture–I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!

Coming Full Circle

I do love diners (and one of these days I’ll write a blog post about the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City, a place where I’ve enjoyed eating breakfast as well.) Truly independent, locally owned and operated places have a special place in my heart. They add to the fabric of a community in a way that your IHOPs and Cracker Barrels and Denny’s(s) don’t (and because of the corporate structure, CAN’T). I’ll end this blog post with a plea: If you find a local place that you love (and yeah, it can be a type of restaurant other than a diner), please support it. These eateries can’t compete with the economies of scale that the corporate giants do, but they take pride in what they make and serve, with the end result being markedly better tasting and fresher food than the industrial behemoths. So yes, Support Your Local Diner!

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And The Rains Continue

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I had a delightful visit from my parents, so this week’s post is short. But they witnessed what may well be one of the wettest Junes I’ve experienced since moving to Indiana. These images sum up what they saw of Indiana this time around.

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The Vagaries of Weather and the Farmer

Water, Water Everywhere

The sunflowers (first of the season purchased at the farmers market Saturday morning) sit brightly on my kitchen island, reminding me of that orb so little seen lately. Yes, the sun has been peeking out a bit today, but solar radiation has certainly been in short supply this past month. For me, the lack of sun affects me more psychically—too much of the same make Petra an irritated (and perhaps irritating) girl. It isn’t that I dislike rain; in fact, I enjoy hearing thunder or listening to a steady soaking rain falling on my roof. But not for days at a time. That said, my complaints are just that, silly complaints. For a farmer, whose livelihood depends on the weather, days of rain can make or break one’s year financially.

I write this on the first day of summer, 2015. The solstice officially occurred at 12:39 PM EDT (16:39 UTC). Earlier today, I drove down to Indianapolis and was struck—almost stunned—by the amount of standing water I saw in the fields. Traveling the interstate in Indiana means traveling alongside farm fields (and, being Indiana, those would be fields of corn, soybeans, and maybe winter wheat). Every field was partly covered with water. In March or April or even the first half of May, it is not unusual to see field with vernal ponds, those temporary mini-lakes occurring where the water table is high. But by the start of (astronomical) summer, they are usually gone. The longer days and warmer temperatures allow for a greater ability for evaporation (or transpiration, which is the process of water returned to the atmosphere in vapor form via plants). What’s different now is that the ponding is occurring to a greater extent than even that of the spring. I know—I have a field behind my house and can see the water in spots. And what else is different is how many fields have NOT been planted.

The Planting

It’s June 21. By now, the farmers should have planted their fields. But conditions this month have been so wet that many fields haven’t even been touched. Acres that should have corn or soybeans growing haven’t been touched and still have last year’s harvest detritus littering the ground. Planting was already behind schedule back at the beginning of May (which was, in retrospect, a fairly dry month); Now this soggy, sodden June has rendered planting even farther behind. And once the summer begins, it may be too late. It’s not just planting, either. Conventional farmers may find conditions too wet to apply fertilizer. Agricultural experts at Purdue University suggest that Hoosier farmers prepare for crop losses due to the flooding.

What’s the Problem with Standing Water?

Plant survival, that’s the problem. Roots cannot survive in saturated soils for very long. Crops planted earlier have (by now) developed stronger and deeper root systems; they will be likelier to survive this flood onslaught. But recently planted corn and soy may be more vulnerable. That comes with the risk, then, of nothing to harvest. And, come fall, no crops means no money.

Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape.
Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape compared to some I’ve seen.

Whither California?

Yes, pun intended. California’s exception drought is getting most of the attention these days. And it rightly should be of concern to us, not just Californians, but the rest of the United States. California does serves as the fruit and vegetable and nut basket—no pun intended—of the country. The recent climatology, coupled with social and political decisions, has culminated in a mess. A big mess.

But, as the case of Indiana shows, too much rain can also be detrimental. I talked with a lamb farmer at the market on Saturday and she told me that her soybean fields were underwater; the lamb pasture is full of water, too,. Another farmer, one who grows organic fruits and vegetables, was bemoaning the plethora of storms that just keep coming and coming and coming. Farmers, as my great-uncle was fond of saying, are the greatest gamblers on the earth. They gamble with the weather.

Counting Blessings and Counting Luck

I’m grateful that my livelihood isn’t so dependent on the chaotic nature of the atmosphere. And hopefully yours isn’t either. In that case (if you are religious), count your blessings; if not religious, count your luck. Maybe I pay for this with some higher prices at the market or with some down moods because I haven’t seen the sun in some time or the occasional flooded roads in my subdivision. But overall, I’m grateful that my concerns with the weather are so small. Farmers aren’t nearly so lucky.

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