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Erica Wides Headshot

Is It Food, or Is It Foodiness? Popcorn Edition

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So now that I've introduced the world to foodiness, (which actually happened three years ago on my show Let's Get Real, the Cooking Show About Finding, Preparing, and Eating Food, on the Heritage Radio Network), and you've all signed up for the spring session of foodiness re-education camp, let's go once again on a trip deep down the foodiness rabbit hole.

Today we're visiting the land of popcorn, which sounds like a totally fun place to live, IMHO, because I love popcorn. We're going there because on this week's episode of LGR, we went deep into popcorn, and even took a quick trip in the foodiness time machine, back to the 1870s.

There we visited my imaginary childhood BFF Laura Ingalls. Who is, if you're wondering, the author and main character of the Little House On The Prairie books.

Laura and I were pals (in my head) back in the '70s, when I read every book in the collection obsessively, and never missed an episode of the TV series. I liked to imagine that she was visiting me, from her time, and I'd amaze her with all the modernity of 1970s America, like electricity and sneakers and Andy Gibb. She and I carried on a long imaginary friendship in my early years, before my focus shifted to the boy with the bowl haircut in my 5th grade math group. Laura was dumped for him, but I still re-read the books every few years, just to stay fresh and historically accurate.

Now, on LGR I talk a lot about snacking, too much maybe, but it's important. I talk about snacking in the same way that America snacks, all day long and in excess. Our days are really just long grazing sessions, punctuated by meals. And because I am a renowned scholar of mid-nineteenth-century American eating habits, due to my extensive reading and watching of LHOTP, I can say that in Laura's time, there was none to very minimal snacking as we know it. Even well up until the mid-20th century, the snack food market was barely existent. Meals were served, you ate them, and if you got hungry in-between, tough shit, kid. Here, have an apple.

The snack industry developed as a way for food manufacturers to use up all the excess corn, wheat, rice and soy that the post-war, industrial farming boom created. Add in the government subsidies for commodity crop farming, and suddenly there was a whole lotta surplus processed grain to use up. So it got made into stuff, like sugary cereals and corn syrup and snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Puffy, doodly, bugley, crispity, crunchy snacks. Or more fittingly, snax.

Most of those snax are made of corn, as we produce so much surplus corn here in the U.S. that we have to turn it into something, and snax manufacturers get it super cheap and are happy to turn it into all kinds of hyper-processed fun shapes and flavors for us overgrown toddlers to gnaw on all day long.

Now where does my BFF Laura fit into all of this? Well she doesn't, but her Pa, Charles Ingalls, aka Michael Landon, (who was my first man-crush, after the math-group boy) does. In the TV series of LHOTP, we'd be given an occasional peek into the intimate life of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, a late-night glimpse into their 19th-century bedroom. Now just relax, because this was 1970s prime-time, family TV, and they wore high-necked flannel gowns and caps to bed. If you wanted titillation, you turned to Three's Company and watched Chrissy Snow jiggle around in her knee socks.

Charles and Caroline were sometimes portrayed in bed, late at night, talking and eating popcorn. Now I found this super titillating anyway, because who was ever allowed to eat anything in bed? That was more exciting to me than anything they might have done under that handmade quilt... And who knows if in the real (non-TV) Ingalls house, Pa made himself a bowl of popcorn late at night? That's besides the point. The point is, they were eating popcorn, because popcorn has been eaten as a snack and used ceremonially and decoratively in the Americas since ancient times. It's our first snack food. It's also very nutritious -- full of fiber, and beta-carotene. Its a true whole grain, fully intact. Not like the "whole-grain" foodiness scams the markets are full of these days.

Popcorn is so good and so truly American, it should be on the flag instead of stars.

Popcorn held its rightful place as our first snack, and continued its noble yet humble purpose right up until the dawn of foodiness, when the snax onslaught began. And even with the avalanche of doodlys and puffies and bootys, popcorn held on. Until the microwave, of course. The microwave stole the joy of popping. Making popcorn on the stove or in an electric popper was a skill, another form of cooking, that the microwave killed off.

Never mind the congealed toxic sludge of hydrogenated oil and artificial flavors and colors that the wee poor kernels were entombed in, and the poisonous plastic films that made those paper pouches grease-proof. Microwave popcorn stole our popcorn heritage.

I use a stove-top gizmo called a Whirley-Pop. It's about as low-tech as it gets, and it's fun to use. I eat popcorn almost daily, and I'm proud of it, OK? I have no snacking shame, because my snack is food. Not snax. And, FYI I buy bulk, organic popcorn for $1.79/lb., which is 11 cents/ounce. An ounce of popcorn makes about EIGHT cups popped. So don't tell me real or organic food is more expensive... How much is that little bag of microwave sludge?

So where does foodiness come into this? Well, microwave popcorn is definitely foodiness, no doubt. Especially now that there are "organic" brands out there. That's a classic foodiness sham. Is the BPA lining the bag organic? And flavored and sweetened popcorn? Well I'm not a fan of over-sweetening or artificially flavoring anything, and I'm kind of a purist, so I'd say no to them, too.

But the worst offense, the reason for this week's rant, the foodiness-est thing that I've seen in a while, is something that was handed to me recently on a flight. It was a bag of "popcorn" chips, shaped like triangles. The product is designed to emulate popcorn texturally and flavor-wise, it has the "health-halo" of popcorn, and makes you think "hey, these are just popcorn, shaped into a triangular chip, I must be doing something great for myself! Thank you, Foodiness Inc. for making popcorn into a convenient, familiar, chip-like shape, just for my lazy snacking ass."

So, we can all still read, right? I mean, you're reading this right now. So let's all turn over the bag of triangle "popcorn" chips, and take a look, OK? Hmm, what's the first ingredient? Ground enriched yellow corn. That's corn flour. Processed, ground, industrial corn and water slurry. So, uh, where's the popcorn? Well, it's not in these triangular foodiness fake-outs. So there's no popcorn in them? Uh, nope. Just processed, enriched corn dust. FYI, know why processed grains are "enriched"? Because the processing strips away all of the nutrition. So they add synthetic vitamins and minerals back in to compensate. "So wait a minute", you're saying, "no popcorn in the popcorn chips?" That's right. Just refined starches, some fake butter flavor, sugar and salt. Popcorn is a whole grain. Triangular "popcorn" chips, are just another extruded, puffed, corn slurry snax. It's a classic foodiness fakery ploy. Don't fall for it. What kind of person do you want to be?

So if Laura decides to come visit me today in 21st-century America, I'm gonna make her a big bowl of real popcorn, pour her some hard cider, and introduce her to the Internet. That should be interesting. Maybe HuffPost will give HER a blog, too!

And remember, if you don't want to eat sh*t... listen to Let's Get Real, the Cooking Show About Finding, Preparing, and Eating Food.

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