Popcorn: Cinema's Worst Enemy
An admittedly irrational screed against the snack.
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."
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.