The other night I made popcorn and discovered that we were out of microwave packets. I had to make the salty treat the old fashioned way, in a pan shaken over the stove.
Mom’s food budget was tight so extravagances like potato chips and soda were rare. My brothers and I especially craved cola and no doubt pestered, whined and finagled her to buy it. When she actually did bring a six-pack home, it was a big event for the family. To get the most out of the purchase, the bottles were rationed over the next couple of weeks. On soda night, Mom pulled three glasses out of the cupboard and then met out one bottle of the ambrosia with the careful eye of a jeweler weighing gems. We were encouraged to watch, and then through a round of eeny, meeny, miny, moe one of us got to pick first. At least one of my brothers favored Coca-Cola while I was a Pepsi man. Both camps were glad to compromise for RC Cola, however, because it came in an eight-pack. Two extra soda nights.
I associate soda with popcorn because it was the best combination this side of puberty (on the other side, beer and pretzels rule). I could nurse a 5.3333 ounce glass (one third of a 16-ounce bottle) for hours, taking the tiniest of sips to make the treat last. I used to wonder if you sipped exactly half of what was remaining would the drink last forever? Years later, when I ventured to college, I couldn’t believe that students had open access to a Pepsi dispenser.
Popcorn was made in the grease kettle, a thick aluminum pan with an inch or two of oil in the bottom that was ever ready on the stove to be heated up for French fries, a staple in our household. The pan was made by a Chicago company called Club Aluminum, and was secured through a friend of a relative who worked there. It’s still in use today. For this article I talked with Mom and she said she made French fries just last night as a treat for her and Dad. She knows it’s healthier to bake the potatoes, but at near-90 they’re not worried about cholesterol. They did live without the pan for a while, she mentioned, as she sent it home with brother Brad to see if he could sand blast off a stubborn accumulation of burnt oil around the rim.
For popcorn, the oil was poured off and then a little new oil, just enough to cover the bottom, was added. Put on a high flame with a few test kernels in the oil, and a cup of popcorn was dumped in as soon as the first kernel popped. From there the pan had to be shaken vigorously to keep from scalding.
As a parent, I kept the tradition alive for my daughters. I favored a copper-bottomed Revere Ware pan. I’ve always made a show of shaking it with extra vigor. On one particular occasion, I actually wore a hole in the bottom of the pan. The result was an explosion of some size as the flames reached the super heated grease and blew the lid to the ceiling.
Keeping an eye out at Goodwill, I eventually replaced the pan with one just like the old. When Sabra and I joined households, it was one of the few things I owned that made the cut to be integrated into our household. I rarely use my pan, however, because we have Teflon lined pots and pans that are much easier to clean. But for popcorn, there’s nothing like the old copper bottom so I reached it down off the hook.
I made it pretty much like I always have with a couple of small changes: instead of vegetable oil, I used olive oil. Instead of a cup I now used three fourths of a cup. Popcorn is better nowadays and you don’t need as much.
Anyway, I was shaking the pan with extra vigor when Sabra walked by and gave me one of those “what on earth are you doing now” looks, and I shouted, “stand back, I think she’s going to blow.”