December 23, 2012

Popcorn good for trees and treats


---- — Popcorn?” she asked. “Why would you write a column about popcorn?” My well-rehearsed answer: “Why not?” Kaye just shook her head and left the room. Not that she doesn’t support my efforts, but sometimes she is baffled at the mundane subjects I choose.

She inquired later how I came to head “off on that tangent.” I chuckled because that is the precise phrase my mother used when I was 10 and wanted to make popcorn balls for Christmas. I was always going off on tangents then and have never changed.

My late mother humored my “tangents” more often than not, and in the case of the popcorn balls, actually helped me gather the ingredients, make the balls and use food coloring to deck them out in different hues. I probably ate more than I hung on the tree, and that proclivity haunts me to this day.

“Babe,” as she was called, told me she and her six older siblings popped corn in a cast-iron skillet on the wood stove at Christmas when they were growing up in Monsey, N.Y. They used a needle and heavy thread to alternately string popped corn and cranberries to make garlands for their tree. She said they also made necklaces and bracelets that way. They gathered acorns and pine cones for decorations as well. Her older brothers would drill the holes in the acorns while the girls were already handy with the needle and thread.

When I was in my 50s, my mother sent me two remnants from those early days. One was a long string of sleigh bells; the other was a box containing old-fashioned colored light bulbs, carefully packaged amid cotton batten. They were made of paper-thin hand-blown glass and in the shape of animals. They were also hand painted and gorgeous. When I opened the box, it took my breath away. How had they survived from the early 20th century?

Yes, one was shattered in transit, and I spent many hours gathering up all the tiny shards and gluing it back together. It was a true labor of love.

I asked friends and relatives to give me their earliest memories of popcorn. Like me, Kaye recalled her family having one of those rectangular tin pans with a long wire handle and a screen that could be slid over top of the popping corn. It was an honor to be designated the “shaker.” Other friends remembered using an iron “spider,” as the skillet or frying pan was called, with an old, battered top, and popping the corn over a wood stove.

Then came the air poppers, pre-packaged corn with the expanding aluminum top, the advent of the microwave and all the modern ways to create a delicious bowl of popcorn in 90-seconds or less.

Corn has been popped for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Columbus found Native Americans doing it when he arrive in the New World.

I remember seeing mobile street-corner popcorn vendors in New York City 70 years ago. Long before that, a guy named Charles Cretors invented a steam popcorn machine and exhibited it at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Since it was cheap, Americans ate a lot of it during the Great Depression and World War II — when I was a youngster.

The Karmelkorn store in Malone was a favorite teenager hangout when I was in high school, and I loved that special taste along with that of the molasses-flavored Cracker Jacks, which also premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Why does popcorn pop? Good question. The hull is tough and moisture-proof. The inside of the kernel contains a dense, starchy material with moisture and some oil. When you heat it, you create something akin to a pressure-cooker, and the steam finally bursts through, giving you that nice, puffy stuff we all know and love.

One more very important thing you need to know in popcorn nomenclature: Those kernels that don’t pop? The official name in the business is “old maids.”

Let’s make something out of popcorn for Christmas.

Kaye and I wish for you the best from our Little house and beg you to please, drive carefully.

Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at