How bad is it out here? On Wednesday, smoke from wildfires throughout the American West turned Bay Area skies an otherworldly shade of dark orange. The COVID pandemic is still very much with us, and most businesses and schools are at least partially closed. Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump presidency, Rage, is predictably enraging. (Read Jennifer Szalai’s sharply written review in the New York Times.)
Things may be even worse in Florida.
So let’s take a moment for distraction. Pass the popcorn.
Pass the Popcorn, a movie-guessing game
My interest in popcorn was piqued by a tweet from Jim Asher, aka Emmett Lee Dickinson.
“Mushroom popcorn” isn’t sprinkled with shiitake. It’s one of two broad categories of popcorn kernels, the other being “butterfly.” The names come from the kernels’ shapes after they’re popped.
Via Popcornopolis, which has published a handy Popcorn 101 primer.
From the Popcornopolis site:
Also sometimes referred to as “snowflake popcorn”, butterfly is well known for its use in theater-style and home-popped popcorn products, usually offered-up with nothing more than a little salt and perhaps some melted butter. Its relatively delicate shape means butterfly popcorn is best consumed fresh-popped for maximum crunch and freshness.
Whereas mushroom popcorn
is perfect for confection-coated applications such as Popcornopolis Caramel Corn. Its sturdy baseball shape (without those fragile butterfly wings) withstands the processes of candy-coating, and because of its exceptional surface area, accepts other flavors (like cheddar cheese!) very well too. The resulting products are less prone to crushing, and once coated, will tend to stay fresh and crispy much longer than their uncoated butterfly popcorn counterparts.
Popcornopolis is one of the Big Three packaged-popcorn brands; the others are The Popcorn Factory and Cornology. Personally, I prefer Trader Joe’s popcorn cornucopia, especially the Hatch Chile and Cheddar flavor, which is available only during the very short Hatch chile* season (basically July and August).
I really should be popping my own popcorn. A company called Nostalgia Products makes several models, including one suitable for large gatherings and unsuitable for my small condo.
Popcorn has been in the language—the American language, anyway—since the 1840s. Like many such compounds (“iced cream,” “boxed set,” “waxed paper”), it first appeared in an -ed form: popped corn. That was around 1842; by 1847 “the heated kernels of the popcorn served as a food snack,” as the OED puts it, were known by one closed-up word, popcorn.
Moderately fun fact: Pillsbury introduced the first microwaveable popcorn in 1983, but within two years was surpassed by Orville Redenbacher. the dominant brand in the unpopped-popcorn market.
On the West Coast of the US in the pre-internet era. you called P-O-P-C-O-R-N (767-2676) to get a recording of the accurate time. The service was discontinued in 2007.
By the 1960s, popcorn could refer figuratively to something insubstantial or “merely entertaining.” One of the OED’s example sentences includes the phrase “popcorn for the eyes.”
One of many “eating popcorn” GIFs—this one depicts Stephen Colbert—that are used to express “I am enjoying this dumpster fire sooooo much.”
Popcorn exists in the UK, too (and no, they don’t call it “popped maize”). Until the early 1980s, though, it was primarily found in movie theaters, where, according to a 1983 article** in the Christian Science Monitor, “they do terrible things to it, including drenching it in sticky caramel liquid.” It took a joint effort by the Popcorn Institute and the US Department of Agriculture to persuade the Brits to eat popcorn the American way, with butter and salt. Three cheers for snack-food diplomacy.
In knitting and crochet, a popcorn stitch is a raised stitch with a puffed texture. Image via The Spruce Crafts
For a while, popcorn intersected with US politics. In “popcorn polls” conducted in movie theaters, customers chose between cartons of popcorn printed with pictures of candidates or symbols of political parties. The OED’s earliest citation is from the Syracuse (New York) Post-Standard in August 1952, during the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign. The term is now used occasionally to refer to any informal, nonscientific poll.
Framed cartons and news articles from the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign. Via Worthpoint.
My favorite popcorn story isn’t about snacks, knitting, or politics. It’s a naming story.
In advertising and branding circles, the trend-spotter Faith Popcorn is revered as an oracle. Back in the early 1980s, she coined “cocooning” to describe “the craving for safety in an increasingly uncertain world,” and she has invented other catchy trend labels such as “EVEolution” (“the way women think and behave,” and how it influences marketing decisions) and “egonomics” (“To offset a depersonalized society, consumers crave recognition of their individuality”). But before she named any of those trends, she renamed herself. Here’s her first-person story, recounted in a 2016 Forbes article:
When I was really young, I worked at a small ad agency, Salit & Garlanda. At the time, my name was Faith Plotkin but I always went by Faith, kind of like how Cher just went by her first name. One day the Art Director I worked with, Gino Garlanda, stopped me and asked, “What’s a Plotkin?” I paused, and he said, “No, you’re Popcorn.” It just felt right. It felt like me. I changed my name immediately and I’ve been Faith Popcorn ever since. It’s helped lead me to where I am today – it’s had an amazing impact on my life.
** Try to overlook the article’s typos, which I suspect are the result of faulty OCR.