Caramel Popcorn and Contemplative Listening
I really love popcorn. I like the way popcorn smells at a harvest festival on an unusually warm day in October. I like it when my good friend makes kettle corn in the way that only she knows how. Girl, I could eat bowls of your popcorn. I like popcorn covered with weird things like lime juice and cayenne powder. I admit it, even truffle butter (gasp). Occasionally it is acceptable to have popcorn for dinner with a glass of wine. Let the kernels fall like lazy snowflakes unto your lap as you continue to write, or read, or stare intently at the window doing nothing. Nothing is at the moment, the perfect rest required after a day of doing. Popcorn is kernel and air, heat and oil- a seed turned into a star of white, weightless fibers. It is a guiltless abundance, a celebration of transformation, a mischievous dish that would just as soon prefer a cozy spot in the couch cushions to your mouth.
I like to dream of the first moment of Popcorn, when a kernel placed on the fire, exploded onto a surprised and unharmed fire keeper. That first curious comet, a right side out soul hot off the press. The first peoples gave English colonists the humble popcorn kernel as a sort of welcome snack. So much can be made from an ear of corn.
A Franciscan priest living among the Aztecs in the 16th century, Father Bernadino de Sahagun, noticed that popcorn was used as the decoration for ceremonial headdresses and woven into necklaces for the statues of the Aztec Gods.
"They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water."
A simple kernel with sacred implications. I think that might be worth listening to.
When I pop corn on the stove I have the chance to listen to a rhythm outside myself. When the oil in the pot is sizzling quietly I know to add the kernels. More sizzling and then....one breaks from the pack! to tap the tin of the pot. Gradually the staccato pops disappear into a softer sound, like an oncoming avalanche. Then I know to do the popcorn dance & shake. The "dance & shake" ensures that the reluctant kernels at the bottom of the pot will not burn. It is also about dancing. Making popcorn is more about listening than it is about taste testing and recipe review.
We talk a lot about tasting food, but cooking is so immersive it wants your ears as well as your tongue, the heart as well as the measuring spoon.
In the tradition of spiritual counseling that I study, contemplative listening is something we practice when we are speaking to individuals or groups. It is deep listening and intent listening which encourages you to clear your mind, making way for the thoughts and experience of others. It seems like a pretty simple concept but I have found that I have to practice everyday. In New York, it is tempting to speak to each other as if it was an exercise akin to fitting in a crowded subway car. In deep listening you don't need to worry about your words being edged out, in fact you don't even have to worry about your words. A simple focus on the sound of the food I am cooking helps me practice listening voices other than my own; animal, mineral, human and spirit. Sharing a bowl of popcorn with good folks helps too.
This caramel popcorn is more of the simple sort, though it does take a few more steps to put together. The brown sugar is a reminder of apple crisp and vanilla ice cream. No one will judge you if you garnish said vanilla ice cream with this popcorn. You can use microwave popcorn to save time but I will always suggest popping your own. The idea is to relish the time that it takes to cook something.Even if you think you can't taste the difference in the food, the difference is a thing that is cooking in you.
Adapted from Paula Dean's "Grandma Paul's Caramel Corn"
1 cup butter 2 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 corn syrup 1 teaspoon baking soda I use 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract About 8 cups of popped corn
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.
Pop your corn! I usually take a big pot that has a lid and add 1/4 cup of oil to it. That will usually successfully pop 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels, and these are great to buy in bulk if you can. When the oil has sizzled and you have added the kernels, put the lid on and wait for the music. Pour your mountain of joy into a big bowl.
Next, grab a smaller pot and mix the first four ingredients together and boil for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and add the baking soda. This will expand the mixture. Stir well and add the vanilla extract at this point. Pour the hot mixture over the popped corn and stir with a soft hand to coat the kernels with the caramel. Transfer the popped corn to a large roaster pan or divide among two baking sheets. Put the trays in the oven and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 9 to 10 minutes to make sure the caramel is hitting all the right nooks and crannies. Spread on waxed paper to dry and then break apart if necessary. You can add nuts or candy corn (too much corn?), dried cranberries or other accoutrements you can imagine. Pop. Crunch. Listen.