Being three years junior to my brother was like playing “Survivor” without Jeff Probst, camera crews, or the exotic location. He seemed to excel with maddening consistency at everything from academics to athletics (fun fact: one name considered for this blog was “unclemichaelalwayswins”), and my parents looked for ways to help me find my niche in the family. I have always been a popcorn lover and my parents decided to build up my self-esteem by dubbing me the Best Popcorn Maker in the Family. (In truth, I saw through the ploy, but couldn’t see any reason to burst their bubble. They were trying so hard to be good parents.)
One evening with Mom out at church choir practice and my brother off…I don’t know where…Dad and I were watching TV and he suggested that I make a batch of my world-famous popcorn. No sweat. I’ll get right on it.
In the kitchen I got out all the necessary tools…Mom’s good spaghetti pot with lid, popcorn, and…now where is the vegetable oil? Look… look… look… Can’t find it anywhere. But, there is a likely substitute found in a cabinet with the cooking supplies. It’s got the right color, a similar consistency (well, kind of) and quite nearly the same name. I was in business after all.
We had a gas stove top so the key to good popcorn was a low flame and a LOT of patience. After all, that secret is how I got to be the Sanderson Family Popper. Low heat…cover the pan in a thin layer of vegetable oil substitute…pour a single layer of popcorn…cover… and wait for the popping to commence. Once it starts, keep the pot moving on top of the burner until the popping has slowed to a near stop. Simple.
I went to watch TV with Dad and kept an ear out for the popping.
I watched more TV than I should have (maybe Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins) but still no noise.
I grew concerned. I went to the kitchen and put my ear near the pan. No kernel explosions at all. From previous experimentation, I had learned that removing the lid to watch the actual popping was a bad idea (don’t ask) so I gave it some extra time. Perhaps fifteen minutes went by.
When I listened again…well, there was popping…that’s true. But not the rapid-fire sound I loved, just an occasional isolated eruption. I needed to have a look. I removed the lid and inside was…a sticky morass of blackened charred goo with a chance kernel popping, trying to reach an escape velocity, jumping to a height of maybe a centimeter or two before being sucked back down into the…burnt…goo that clung on resolutely. I had cooked my very own, personal La Brea Tar Pits, a boiling miserable miasma, destined to create fossils out of an unsuspecting evening snack. Pop. A few seconds later another prisoner would try to escape, but with no different results. Slurp. (At this point it may help to visualize the Millennium Falcon being sucked back by the Death Star’s tractor beam.)
I had no idea how to explain this.
Me: I think we have a problem.
He wasn’t sure who the “we” were or why he was being included, but he dutifully came out to the kitchen.
Dad: (Peers into the pot in Stunned Silence)
Me: *Blink Blink*
Dad: (More Stunned Silence)
It turns out that corn syrup is NOT an appropriate replacement for corn oil. Again, similar color, only slightly more viscous, and a similar name to boot. I felt cheated and tricked by the food industry, but my pain was nowhere near the pain on Mom’s face when she came home to find her favorite spaghetti pot ruined and sitting on the back step. The only thing that spared me from severe punishment was my obvious remorse; nothing could spare the spaghetti pot, destined for a trip to the dump.
My next Christmas gift was an ice cream scoop. Much safer than popcorn.