Sense and Nonsense: The Lure and Lore of Popcorn

Popcorn, I know, unlike wine, was never mentioned in Scripture. This omission was not, I think, a divine oversight but a reminder for the faithful that they might have to await the discovery of the New World to find out all the good things God had in store for them. You will have to remember that these reflections are being written by someone born in Iowa. I still recall that in all the gardens of my youth—in our neighborhood, in my uncles’ larger country gardens—there would always be two or three rows of popcorn planted, usually next to the sweet corn. The sweet corn was for the early summer. The popcorn was for the fall and winter and spring, and, yes, for the summertime, too. A seed for all seasons, it was.

Popcorn was not exactly something you would kill for, but it certainly was something that you loved to smell and pop. I still cannot pass a place where the smell of freshly popped corn is coming out and not pause to wonder how one could invite oneself in for a taste. Moreover, I know nothing of the various varieties of popcorn, though I do recall the white and the yellow corn, one oblong, the other round. I recall, too, that different corn would have different tastes. All corn did not taste the same.

Popcorn is not to be stinted nor left to the health food critics—dare I say “nuts”? If you do not eat popcorn in its natural order, that is, with butter, salt, or in balls of some exquisite sticky stuff like my father used to concoct, you are not eating popcorn.

Thus, you can imagine how pleased I was to find a long entry under “popcorn” in the New Columbia Encyclopedia—the Britannica, being British, I suppose, had very little on popcorn, and it was listed under “maize,” if you know what I mean. The Britannica did say that popcorn was a variety of flint corn, with little starch and no depressions in the kernels. In fact, popcorn is practically devoid of soft starch—which is why I believe those on certain diets can eat it plain, which, of course, it never should so be eaten. It also “explodes” to six or eight times its kernel size because of the moisture in it, hence its name. Popcorn, I insist, requires butter and salt. That is its natural law.

Popcorn was a sort of ceremony in our Iowa home and remains so in the homes of my brothers and sisters. There were certain rules our dear grandmother, who brought us up, insisted on: One, if you make it, you clean up the mess. (We sometimes did.) Two, spread newspapers everywhere so you do not ruin the rugs. (We did, but I noticed that you were likely to find popcorn kernels under the sofas or beds or chairs, in the strangest places, come clean-up time.) Three, eat what you make. Four, don’t use all the butter. (We did.)

Well, in any case, you probably cannot make enough popcorn, at least the right way, like my friends or brothers make it, in the natural order, with butter and salt—and you have to have lots of water, too, and not intend to eat anything else for at least 12 hours afterwards. This is why popcorn is great for evenings in the winter—it seems to have been created by God to anticipate the long afternoons and evenings of watching football or basketball on TV. If this does not prove divine providence, nothing does.

Anyhow, this is what the New Columbia Encyclopedia says: “Freshly popped corn seasoned with salt and butter or formed into balls with molasses taffy is especially popular in the United States.” I dare say. Well, I hear the Japanese have discovered it for their bars, like peanuts, at a horrendous price. And few of us, recalling the amount of popcorn we could buy in our lost youth for ten cents—my brothers and I used to know old farmers in Knoxville where we could always get a cheap supply—can tolerate the price of popcorn at today’s movies, even though we pay it because of the fact that you cannot go to movies without popcorn. This ten-cent price was during the war, World War II, that is. What we never could stand was margarine instead of butter. We still ate it, but it was just not the same. Still, to see how comparatively little popcorn you get these days in the movies for $1.50 almost boggles the mind by comparison.

I know today there are all sorts of popcorn poppers, including prepackaged throwaway contraptions with butter and salt so you never have to do a thing but open a foil. There are big names in the popcorn industry, too, but I don’t know any of them. When it comes to popcorn, moreover, the Aristotelian rules of moderation do not apply. If there is not a huge supply upcoming, don’t even begin. The stuff is a drug which makes cocaine look harmless. Once you start, you not only cannot stop—if it has butter and salt, of course—you ought not to stop. Good things need sometimes to be savored in their abundance. This is the natural law.

The encyclopedias claim that they found popcorn in the graves of pre-Columbian Indians. Bless them.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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