Air-popped popcorn


Memories of a time before microwaved kernels

by Patty Lawrence

What’s for snack?” is the standard questions after Avery and Jordan clamber out of the school bus each afternoon. I want to know what they read, math problems they solved, who they played with. I want to know if they asked any good questions today. Unless the librarian brought in a black snake, they offer no details. They are tired, hungry, and have moved beyond school for the day.

“What’s for snack?”

I cede the conversation, “Popcorn.”

“I don’t like that kind.” says Jordan. We’d been mindlessly munching microwave “Kettle Corn” of late. It was disgusting. Everyone, except six-year old Jordan, who refused to swallow the sickenly sweet, chemical coated stuff, ate it anyway.

“Not that kind,” I say “a new kind.”

I tunnel to the back of a low cupboard and haul out the air popper.

“What’s that?”

“It’s an air popper.”

“We don’t like it.” I can count on Avery to have an opinion.

“You will,” I say pouring the kennels into the well. The girls watch the popcorn swirl. I place butter in the small indent on the cover top and let it melt. It dawns on me that the girls have never seen popcorn pop. How did this simple childhood pleasure fade in favor of a sealed bag inside a sealed microwave? When had Andy and I had decided that using the popper was too much trouble?

The popper, exuberant after its long hiatus, flung popcorn everywhere. Kernels exploded in the bowl, the floor, the counter. They ricocheted off everything landing helter-skelter around the kitchen. The girls' skepticism turned to glee and they squealed with delight. Popcorn soared across the kitchen.

“Is this old-fashioned?” asks eight-year old Avery.

I pause.

Air-popped popcorn has been a hot topic at their school’s nutrition meetings. Microwave popcorn, argue the groups’ progressives, is unhealthy. They offer the recent lawsuit by cancer-ridden plant workers as proof. We cannot feed it to our children. But the children won’t eat bland popcorn the others counter and it’s a hassle for the teachers to make. The debate circled for twenty minutes at two different gatherings and I stopped attending nutrition meetings.

Those excruciating meetings were, however, the impetus for me putting plain old popcorn kernels in my shopping cart. What was new? What was old?

“This air popper was your great-grandfather’s,” are the words I don’t say. I don’t say, “Popcorn was his favorite snack.” Nor do I say the last time he used it was Tuesday November 7th, 1989. I suppose at the very least that makes this air popper “old.”

I don’t say using this air popper was the last meaningful thing your great-grandfather ever did. In the morning on that first Tuesday in November, Dodie and Cal voted. Both of them were thoughtful voters who always knew all the candidates and all the issues. They read the local paper, the New York Times, the periodicals, the books. They watched the 6:00 news and listened to public radio.

Cal grew up on an Iowa farm. He used to tell my brother and me tales of his cow, Marker, and how it was his job to get her into the barn each night and about the time she got away and he had to go looking for her.

To make ends meet, his father was an auctioneer and his mother a school teacher. Cal escaped the farm eventually landing at Columbia University to earn his PhD in psychology. That’s where he met my grandmother, Dodie, a graduate student.

She broke off an engagement and they eloped. Her staunch Catholic, Long Island family, who had money for nannies, cooks, and maids, was horrified. In some kind of cosmic joke, Cal ended up the Republican and Dodie the Democrat. And for all the care they took readying for the polls, in sixty-two years of marriage they often canceled each other’s vote.

On that Tuesday morning after they returned from the polls, my grandfather decided to fix his favorite snack. While air-popped popcorn was leaping into the bowl, Cal had a stroke. It was a fitting end. I’ve always been happy about his last acts—each was something that mattered to him.

My grandmother scurried to the neighbors for help. It the excitement, their dog knocked her over. She fell, landed on her hands, and broke both wrists.

Cal lived in a nursing home for two years after that bowl of air-popped popcorn. He didn’t know anyone except my grandmother and mostly was happy reliving his Bermuda honeymoon. He would have rather died.

Dodie sold their house and moved into a retirement village. It was lovely upscale place with many amenities. She referred to it as “The Institution.”

Definitive moments--voting, air popcorn, the stroke, broken wrists--forever changed--swirl in my mind. Popcorn swirled in the kitchen.

“Is this old-fashioned?” The question lingers.

I hedge, “Hmmm. . . no. . .” Am I lying? I’m not sure. How can such a simple question have no answer?

The girls gather unruly popcorn by the handful and the dog and the cat congregate hoping to capitalize on merriment and treats.

After pouring on the butter, I add salt. These additions, serious departures from the normal piece of fruit for snack, thrill the girls. Popcorn flies into greedy mouths faster than it flew out of the popper. They love it.

“Can we make more?” one of them begs.

“Yes,” I say. Two big bowls of popcorn in one afternoon. The kitchen is littered with popcorn. Life is good.

The next day the first question off the bus is, “Can we have air-popped popcorn?”

“Yes.” I say.

Art by Mo Conlan

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