The Significance of Popcorn


            When I first arrived in Bettmeralp, a small ski village in the Swiss Alps, I immediately opened one of my suitcases and pulled out the large clear plastic bag full of caramel corn that I had made the day before. I had come for a short vacation with six friends I knew from the Swiss village I live in.

            I thought they would be happy and grateful that I had had brought this treat to share with everyone. Of the six, only Mädi was familiar with what it was. I had given her a bag to try as a Christmas gift. She was very happy. The rest of them were a bit curious, but mostly skeptical.

            “This is why you carried two bags up the hill?” René asked.

            The village we were in was nestled on the sunny slope of a mountain and no cars were allowed. We had to carry everything we brought onto a cable car that brought us up the mountain and then we schlepped it through the snowy streets of the village to the house we were renting for the week.

            I tried to explain to them how nice I thought it would be to have something to munch on while we played cards in the evenings.

            “I don’t really like popcorn,” Anja said.

            “That’s because you’ve only had Swiss popcorn,” I said. “This caramel corn was made with popcorn I brought from the states last summer. Swiss popcorn really isn’t the same.” I continued to try to convince them that this was a good thing. “This was made with Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn.” Of course, this meant nothing to them. In Switzerland, popcorn is basically an unknown item.

            “In the states,” I continued, “we have aisles dedicated to popcorn. We have yellow popcorn, white popcorn and black popcorn. We even have rainbow-colored popcorn – a treat my mom used to make on special occasions when I was a child. And, we have a thousand different brands to choose from.”

            “A thousand?” Anja asked.

            “Well, not really a thousand. But many more that the one brand you have here.”

            The grocery stores in Switzerland have a small pile of little bags on the bottom shelf of the candy aisle. Hardly enough to feed one family, let alone all the people that do their weekly shopping there.

            “Does the colored popcorn turn your tongue a different color?” asked Seline, the daughter of René.

            “No,” I said, becoming a bit frustrated. “It’s just the color of the outside shell.”

            She looked more confused.

            “Never mind,” I said. “It’s just popcorn. You’ll have to try it.”

            “Maybe later,” was the general consensus.

            I decided not to mention the large Ziploc bag of un-popped corn that I had also brought.

            Later that night, when I thought enough time had passed after dinner, I filled a small bowl with caramel corn and placed it on the coffee table. They had to be hungry enough to try this silly ‘Americanish caramel popped corn’.

            They were tentative at first, but encourage by Mädi who dug right in. One be one, they tried a few pieces, all except for Margaritte, who had opened a box of cookies coated with Swiss chocolate.

            I could tell that they were starting to enjoy it by their softly uttered “uh-huhs”. But they did it quietly; in the way the Swiss seem to do everything.

            When the bowl was nearly empty, Margaritte walked over, took a piece, ate it and then gave me the compliment I had been looking for.

            “If I had known it was this good,” she said, “I wouldn’t have eaten all of those cookies!”

            As our week in Bettmeralp continued, they started to ration their caramel corn. They regarded it as a special treat and ate only a few pieces at a time. If this bag had been presented to my brother and sisters, it would have been gone in less than an hour.

            Growing up as a Neenan in Iowa – the corn capital of the world – popcorn in any form was seen as a staple, much the same as the Swiss grow up with melted cheese. Popcorn was a normal Sunday evening dinner for us. Mom served it with apples and thought the apples made it a very nutritious meal to serve us as the family watched movies together.

            Multiple batches were made and dumped in to a large plastic wash basin. We were each given our own small popcorn bowl and refilled it many times throughout the movie. My concept that popcorn was one of the most important things in life was developed and burned into my brain on these family evenings.

            Whenever I’m with my friends in the states, I’m always requested to make popcorn in the evenings. I search my friend’s homes for the largest bowl I can find and pop and pop and pop until it’s full. At first they’re shocked at the quantity, but they soon learn that it all gets eaten, down to the last kernel.

            My friends respect my popping skills and I’ve come to be known as the popcorn master. When I call myself the popcorn master with my family, they always protest. “Barb,” they say, “is the master popcorn popper.” I’ve told them that I can distinctly remember standing over the stove in the kitchen on Kilimanjaro Drive, popping popcorn and sneaking hot pieces from the bowl while they waited downstairs in the family room, smelling the warmth drifting from upstairs. But, I understand that it’s normal for memories to fade as we age.

            They don’t remember me ever being the one to make popcorn. Instead, their story is that Mom always popped it until Barb was old enough to take over the responsibilities. I have conceded to the majority and have become willing to accept second status among the masters in our family. But, this is only with my family. Among friends, I am still the master. And now, I had news friends, Swiss friends, that hadn’t yet experienced my ability.

            The caramel corn supply was dangerously low and I had an evening of playing cards with my Swiss friends ahead of me, with no snack to munch on. It was the perfect opportunity to enlighten them on plain old regular American popcorn. I prepared them for their introduction by holding up the Ziploc bag and let them take in the sight of the golden un-popped kernels.

            “Is that popcorn?” René asked. “I thought it would be like some kind of nut or a kind of grain, like wheat.”

            “No…,” I said, taking on the role of educator. “It’s a special kind of corn that’s grown for popping. But it’s a corn, just like sweet corn or the corn that’s fed to pigs.”

            That was the wrong association. I could see by the disgusted looks spreading across their faces that they were beginning to regret ever eating from the near empty bag of caramel corn. I decided to let the corn speak for itself and went into the kitchen to look for a large bowl that I could fill. I settled on three medium sized bowls and filled the pan on the stove with oil and popcorn.

            As I started the second batch, René came in to watch. “You just put it in a pan with some water and it starts to pop?” he asked.

            I gently explained to René, who’s trying to lose weight, that it’s made with oil, not water, and yet it really is a healthy snack.

            I could have laughed at his lack of knowledge on how corn pops, but I excused him because of his lack of exposure. It did, however, remind me of another friend who had been just as uneducated and she’s an American who has, like me, loved popcorn all of her life.

            Mary Jo is one of my friends and lives in Minnesota. She’s eaten many, many bowls that I’ve popped and had even in the past, popped some batches on her own.

            We were sitting on her bed watching TV with her niece Krissy, eating red licorice and popcorn. Krissy made a comment about how amazed she was that each kernel of corn could produce so much popcorn. I wasn’t sure what she meant.

            “You mean because each kernel pops up so large?” I asked.

            “No,” she said, “I mean how each kernel pops up so many pieces.”

            I was shocked. She was an American. How could she say this? There was a chance that I offended her, but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

            I looked at Mary Jo and asked her, “Can you believe that?”

            “Believe what?” Mary Jo asked. “Each kernel does make a lot of pieces. Look at how full the bowl is.”

            At this point, I bit my lip and stopped laughing. I didn’t know what to say. Mary Jo honestly believed this theory. Krissy, I could excuse. She was young and not yet a mother. She didn’t have any experience as a cook or a popcorn popper. But Mary Jo?!? The mother of four grown children? I had idolized her and her knowledge of all things in the world.

            I asked her again, “Are you serious?”

            “Let’s do an experiment,” she said.

            Being an engineer by education, I agreed to her scientific request and we all went to the kitchen. I put oil in a pan while Mary Jo counted out 20 kernels of corn. After we put the lid on the pan, they waited with the anticipation of lab technicians waiting for a solution to prove to be an acid or a base. I only waited to prove my point. I already knew the answer.

            Back in Bettmeralp, as my Swiss friends sat around the table enjoying this new treat called ‘plain popcorn’, I laughed and told them about this hilarious experiment we had done at Mary Jo’s. The humor of the story was completely lost on them.

            “You Americans really must put a lot of focus on popcorn,” said Seline.

            “Focus?” I replied. “Not really. But I don have one more story to tell you about crazy Americans and popcorn.”

            I told them about the time I participated in a two-evening study conducted by an advertising group in Minneapolis. I had sat around a table with seven other people who were recruited through a phone survey to come and talk about how we felt regarding popcorn. We had a discussion guide who probed for our deepest feeling and the whole thing was filmed from behind a two-way mirror.

            “Your feelings about popcorn?” Anja asked, looking shocked in the way the Swiss typically look when asked about love or any other feeling that doesn’t necessarily need to be discussed. “You have feelings about popcorn?”

            “Yes. Feelings,” I said. “They wanted to know what triggers people to buy popcorn so that they could base their advertising on it.”

            I explained that on the second evening we had been asked to bring one item to share that captured how we felt about popcorn, and it couldn’t have anything to do with the process of making popcorn.

            I had brought a pack of cigarettes. Although smoking may be a horrible image, it was something that had been a part of my life since I had been a young girl and it was something that I hadn’t felt I could ever eliminate from my life. Seeing someone smoke, like seeing someone on a TV show sitting with a big bowl of popcorn, would create such a craving in me that even a snowstorm couldn’t keep me from trying to quench the desire. I also saw the frequency of my smoking as something to hide, just as I would never admit as an adult to how many nights per week I popped a batch of popcorn.

            “They paid you one-hundred dollars, U.S., to talk about this?” Anja asked, still flabbergasted.

            “Yes. And not just me, but also the other seven people in my group and the twenty-four people that made up the other three groups in the study.”

            “Wow!” René said. “Popcorn must be really expensive in the U.S.”

            “Nope,” I said. “it’s still one of the cheapest meals you can make, including apples, and for me, it’s the most comforting thing in my life because it always reminds me of my family.”


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