An admittedly irrational screed against popcorn.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Sept. 17 2014 8:39 AM

Popcorn: Cinema's Worst Enemy

An admittedly irrational screed against the snack.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Memorial Day is a big holiday for moviegoing. Have you been to Iron Man 3 yet? Taking the kids to Epic? There's a good chance you'll get some popcorn, right? Back in 2010, Rosecrans Baldwin ranted against the noise, ugly, unhealthful snack. As we kick off summer blockbuster season, we're reprinting his original article, below.

When I was too young and innocent to recognize obscenity, my family received a holiday popcorn tin from my father's office. I ate my way down to the bottom: through the fake cheddar soot, the caramel casings, the buttered nutmeat. And though I remember being sick, it's the stench that really lingers in memory—how the separate aromas oxidized and burned my sinuses.

With the 82nd Academy Awards approaching and the scent of popcorn in the air, I think it's time to tell world that I can't stand popcorn. I can't even be in the same room as the stuff. This past August, the food editors at America Online polled thousands of their readers, and according to them, America's most despised foods include liver, chitterlings, and parsnips. Other than popcorn, mine are meringue, squid, and catfish, but those are only dislikes; I wouldn't starve in Key West. I'd much sooner see those three wrapped around a liver-chitterling Popsicle than share living space with a fresh batch of popped corn.

Not everyone's first popcorn snack ends in sickness, of course. People say popcorn is delicious, low-calorie, and fun to chew—no, I'm joking. Anyone who would defend popcorn would also, I'm sure, sell his children for spare parts. I'm routinely surprised to see people eating popcorn—those slimy Styrofoam berries, those dehydrated sea sponges. And it's never dainty picking, the consumption of popcorn. It's gorging. It's glutton-eering. It's the cramming of greasy, tasteless florets in Natural Flavoring down the esophagus is what it is.

Among its crimes, let's start at the top: Popcorn is cinema's worst enemy. Worse than cell phones, worse than Andie MacDowell. I accept that popcorn is a big money-maker for theaters—profit can be upwards of 90 cents for every dollar of popcorn sold. But popcorn eaters sound like they're engaging in jungle combat—all that squealing and crunching. When I was in college, Breaking the Waves made me vomit. Shaky camerawork and Danish sadism I can tolerate. It was the smell of buttered popcorn that did the trick. And say what you want about cigarettes causing cancer, at least smoking is silent.

Second, aesthetics. Popcorn looks like sheep shit. Bagging and buttering it only makes it look clammy. Maybe I've seen one too many Cremaster cycles, but I'm convinced that if Matthew Barney wasn't so interested in petroleum jelly, he'd use popcorn instead.

Third, nutrition. According to the Popcorn Board, a trade group funded by U.S. popcorn processors, Americans consume about 16 billion quarts of popcorn annually. That's 52 quarts per person, which isn't so bad if we're just talking about stove-top corn popping. But not listed is how many of those quarts have melted "butter" pumped on top. A lot, I'd guess—which is a scary thought. A November 2009 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a medium popcorn at a Regal-chain movie theater contains 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat (the fat of an entire stick of butter). Popcorn even inspired our obesity epidemic: In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan says that the inventor of "supersizing," David Wallerstein, experienced his Newton moment while observing people in movie theaters. He noticed that although customers were ashamed to hit the snack bar for second helpings, they didn't mind paying more in the first place if their popcorn was served in a bucket.

Finally, the plight of the nation. This one's simple. If all the corn that goes into making popcorn was diverted to the ethanol-fuel industry, we wouldn't be so dependent on foreign oil.

I believe I've made my case. But I don't imagine many people will agree with me. Americans love popcorn, and their love doesn't quit. According to Andrew F. Smith's Popped Culture, from 1936 to 1947, average popcorn production was 170 million pounds. By 1965, production was reaching 533 million pounds. In 1997, more than 997 million pounds. And it's not only plain or buttered that's adored; these days you can buy all kinds of doctored popcorn: heritage-kernel popcorn, white chocolate popcorn, blue-raspberry popcorn. I'm just a lone voice, crying in a field of exploding cobs.

For the sake of "real" journalism, while writing this article I've considered the idea that it's wrong of me to find popcorn intolerable. Indeed, maybe irrational hatreds—I'll admit my hostility is irrational—are inherently invalid. I was torn and decided to call an expert: an old friend (I'll call him Harry) who writes well-regarded history books about war. He also happens to hate Belgium. Always has.

"Hate," Harry said, "is a strong word for the Belgians, but I think it's appropriate. For three reasons: Firstly, no one can name a famous Belgian."

"What about Poirot?" I said.

"Exactly, you illustrate my point; when people do, it's invariably either Hercule Poirot or Tintin—both of whom are fictional, I'll point out, which tells you something. Secondly, Belgium is not a real country. It's a Frankenstein's monster with some Walloons bolted onto the Flemish."

"Third?"

"Thirdly, Belgiums started World War I."

"Isn't that taking it a bit far?" I said.

"I mean," said Harry, "admittedly, it's because Germany invaded. But Belgium was still there at the start, so it was involved."

I came away impressed. Irrational hatred isn't meaningless, Harry proved, as long as you're thorough in gathering evidence to support your subjective loathing. I decided to test myself—to actually sample the stuff. When Jeffrey Steingarten started his position as Vogue's food correspondent, he initiated a program to rid himself of silly phobias, which in his case included Greek cuisine, Indian desserts, and kimchi, among others. He tried each thing eight times and reported success. So I drove to two grocery stores near my house, picked up a bag of kernels and a couple different kinds of microwave popcorn, and set to work. Either I'd outgrow my childhood dislike for popcorn or emerge secure in my convictions.

I started with the instant popcorn and kept a notebook on the counter. For Orville Redenbacher's "Buttery Salt and Cracked Pepper" flavor, I noted under appearance, "milky white, speckled with black dots (fleas?)." The aroma wasn't appetizing, either. A bit like burnt magazine subscription cards. The flavor was gruesome. Take the same burnt cards and use them to clean out a pepper shaker. It made my mouth hurt. Then I loaded Redenbacher's "Gourmet Movie Theater Butter Popcorn" into the microwave and lowered my head. As soon as the smell hit me, my nerves tingled. The stuff was post-apocalyptic—road food by Cormac McCarthy. Anti-nature, anti-decency. The popped kernels looked like someone peed on them. I gagged loudly. "God, are you alright?" my wife said from the other room. I tasted one bite, threw the bag into the trash, and sealed the trash bag inside a second trash bag. Without my asking, my wife opened three windows in the kitchen.

I'll give credit to Newman's Own "Organic Microwave Popcorn with Light Butter": It looks like little fluffy clouds. The flavor isn't terrible, merely waxy. The batch of popcorn I made on the stove, with olive oil and a little bit of sea salt, had some value: The squirrels ate it after I dumped it in the woods.

I scribbled my conclusion in the notebook and I stand by it: Popcorn's awful stuff. This probably will offend some people. It's Academy Award season, and nothing's more American than hitching on a buttered nosebag while applauding Meryl Streep. Well, I enjoy Hollywood too, so allow me to suggest an alternative for your Oscars-watching party: nachos. Cheesy, scrumptious nachos: my culinary one true love. When I was a kid, we didn't eat in restaurants much, but a good report card meant my sister or I could choose anyplace in town for a dinner out, and I always picked Benny's, a dive bar near the train station, because they had the best nachos around. Loaded with cheese, adorned with specks of steak, served with a scoop of sour cream or guacamole, nachos aren't good for you. They also cool quickly, and they're revolting eaten cold. But I eat them cold all the time. Love can be irrational, too.

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