Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a girl. She was an ordinary girl. Not a wallflower, but not a high-flyer either. She was loved by her family, got on well(-ish) at school, had the requisite number of boyfriends and breakups, and battled the occasional outbreak of pimples with spot cream and floor gazing. In short, ordinary. But one day, empty of wallet and loathe to keep tapping a generous-to-a-fault father for yet more money, she decided to get a Saturday job. So, armed with a short resume consisting of kid’s movie reviewer for the town newspaper, church choir member, and zero retail experience, this girl left the house. More in hope than expectation.
The first shop she entered was quite daunting, with low lights and a cluster of employees talking and laughing. Her hands were sweating and her breathing shallow, the resumes crumpling in her trembling hand. She felt like she had entered a party uninvited. With toilet paper on her shoe. The group looked her up and down with disinterest, then turned their backs, returning to their no doubt scintillating conversation about Duran Duran, or some such. Just as she turned to leave, humiliated, a man caught her eye. He looked harassed but smiled pleasantly at her, boxes and bags balanced precariously in his strained arms. She asked if he needed a hand, which he did, and she opened the door, accompanying him out into the still, hot evening air.
This being the mid-1980s and she being a carefree teenager, the girl was oblivious to any thought that this gesture might put her in harm’s way. So she accompanied him to his car and helped him load it with these awkward purchases. He saw the now quite disheveled sheaf of resumes in her hand and asked if she was looking for work. She replied that she was but that she wasn’t holding out much hope because she had never worked in a shop before. The man grinned broadly and held out a thin but strong hand, “Hi, I’m Roy. I am your new employer.”
It turned out that Roy was just getting ready to open a popcorn shop. Yes, a popcorn shop. This was a curious new retail concept for the ever-hungry, ever-snacking Americans who, having temporarily fallen out of love with doughnuts, had fallen in love with fiber. Or at least salt. Roy had just that very day been told by his wife that he had to find someone to help him work in the shop. He told the girl that he was recovering from a heart attack and that his wife worried that this new venture, fun though it might be, would send him right back to the hospital. And, as she was the new mother of twins, she couldn’t possibly help.
Of course the girl was me. The very next day I started at the shop, called – oddly – “I Love Popcorn.” From the get go I was popping on an industrial scale, mixing flavours to order. Nearly everyone who walked past this store, with its enticing smell of popping corn, was drawn in. Some came just to gawp at the flavour board (chocolate-peanut butter was my favourite), while others walked out with far more bags than anyone could possibly eat.
I had a wonderful time in this curious store, with its back room filled with all manner of outsized bottles, colourful bags of powders, flapping machines wheezing popcorn, and gleaming pots and pans. It was like the most delicious chemistry set for food nerds. Looking back through the haze of the (many) intervening years I think that this chance meeting and fun, but unchallenging, job was a huge life lesson. That lesson being: listen to your instincts, they’ll almost always be right. You see, I could have brushed past the man and gone on to the next store with my shabby sheaf of pathetic resumes, probably ending up working in a boring shop, gossiping with fellow employees and ignoring customers. But I just thought, that man needs a hand so I’ll give it. He said later that he would have never considered someone my age, seeing us all as rather irresponsible and ill-mannered. I was glad that this one brief encounter not only had him perhaps rethink the teenage species, but confirmed to me that I should trust my judgment.
To this day I have clung to this thought, and it has rarely let me down. Sure, there have been some terrible choices – mainly of the haircut and clothing variety (one reason I’m not on Facebook!) – but by and large I get away with listening to my inner voice. This is something I encourage participants on my cancer nutrition courses to do as well.
When we are young we are hugely instinctive little creatures, gravitating towards those who love us and avoiding those we mistrust. We also eat when we are hungry and not because the clock says so, and in amounts appropriate to our growing, active bodies. Certainly as I’ve got older I have to work harder to hear the tiny squeaking voice that says, “you don’t need a second helping,” and “that piece of fruit is a better choice than that bag of crisps.” I think most of us are like that. We get socialised and quasi-brainwashed into eating in certain ways that go against our natural instincts, which is to nourish ourselves. Does that sound familiar?
It’s hard sometimes, especially when things go wrong or worrying in other aspects of life. Food is a comfort and a haven for many of us. But I guess it’s about working out a balance between gut instinct (excuse the pun) and our need for the familiar and comfortable.
Which leads me back to popcorn. If you have made it this far – congratulations, you get an awesome snack!
Popcorn is a familiar, comforting food for many Americans. However, whereas back in the olden days (pre 80s) it was a purely DIY affair of pouring popcorn kernels into a pan slicked with hot oil and waiting for the popping to cease, now it is most often a bag stretching and pinging to life in a microwave. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you: don’t do it! Step away from the microwave popcorn!
We have recently found out that not only is popcorn an awesomely delicious snack food, it is actually very good for us, with more heart-healthy polyphenols than many fruits and vegetables. But not from a bag. It’s not the microwaving that is the issue, but the nonstick lining of the convenient little bag. When it is heated the chemicals lining the bag are agitated and released, entering the lungs upon opening. That smell and warmth? It is wafting some pretty dodgy stuff. These chemicals are said to hang around in the lungs for years. Prevention magazine named it as one of the 7 foods that should never cross your lips. Wow. Pretty damning stuff when you think that we live in a world giving us a burger that packs in over 1000 calories between its buttered buns.
I remember practically living on microwave popcorn at college, and also at my first ‘real’ job, at a hospital of all places. The ping of the microwave and familiar faux butter smell had us all responding Pavlovian-like, leaping for a bowl even if we had just eaten. Irresistible. I still love it, but popped ‘from scratch’ in a ratty old pan reserved just for this task. I don’t really rate air poppers, seeing them as spacemongers. For you youngsters out there living in a dorm or in poorly-equipped digs, a microwave may be your only option to enjoy popcorn. I would just say, as an older friend, choose a good ‘natural’ brand, open those bags carefully and turn your face away. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “Don’t inhale.”
Another idea is to pour a few tablespoons of popcorn into a brown paper lunch bag, fold the top over a few times and microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. I’ve seen this on a few reputable websites but not tried it. Nervous Nelly me would urge caution (is there a risk of fire, I wonder). When you get your first apartment, make a good set of pans, plain canola oil and a bag of popping corn one of your first purchases.
When even the tins of beans run low, popcorn is a filling and cheap fix until you go home for a home-cooked meal. And tap your generous-to-a-fault father for a ‘loan.’
Thanks, Dad. I’ll pay you back soon xxx
Spicy Seaweed (or Kale!) Popcorn
Last year: Roasted Fruit with Baklava Crumble
Two years ago: North Africa Okra Tagine with Spiced Crispy Tofu
Track of the week (bonus track!): Of course it’s got to be The Popcorn Song by Hot Butter
I use plain, non-virgin rapeseed/canola oil for popping corn, but others like coconut oil and olive oil (I sometimes use olive oil for plain corn). I favour rapeseed oil for not only its high burning point (a good thing) but also its neutral flavour. The short cooking time and constant agitation will undoubtedly mitigate against any dangerous chemical changes that occur with cooking at high temperatures with oil. But I would still caution against using extra virgin oils and highly flavoured seed oils, like sesame, for any high temperature cooking.
If you can’t find nori sheets you could use what are called ‘seaweed snacks’ or even crumpled kale chips (bought or homemade). As for the togarashi, it is easy to make and keeps well. Otherwise you can buy it at any shop that sells Japanese products (I think Waitrose still carries its own brand own).
This is my heavily tweaked adaptation of Nori Popcorn, found in Sprouted Kitchen by Sara Forte. I’ve also got a White Chocolate Popcorn with Strawberry and Rosewater recipe.
2 tbsp rapeseed/canola oil
- 100g (1/2 cup) popping corn
- 1 heaped tsp unrefined sugar (this helps the flavours to stick)
- 2 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
- 1/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil, to sprinkle