Thursday, January 2, 2014

That was the best popcorn in Oz

By Steve Evans

Inflating a bag of microwave popcorn restored my childhood this afternoon.

The aroma of the popping kernels propelled my mind into a state of total recall and it was 1966 again. Let me explain. I have an unusual gift: a photographic and olfactory memory that can transport me to any point in my life, if the triggers are right. It's like watching a movie. I just close my eyes and...

Today I was three-years-old again. My parents were popping corn in a metal appliance that got so screaming hot I was forbidden to go near it. This ‘lectric popcorn popper was purely utilitarian in design; it had all the aesthetic appeal of a metal trashcan in an alleyway. I didn’t care. I was told magic came out of it, and when you're three, you're inclined to believe what you hear. As it happens, for once in my life the hyperbole came true. I would be a witness to magic.

Cinematic Cteve's ancient popcorn machine

The bottom half of the popper was essentially an electric burner with a metal coil that glowed angry orange. The upper half consisted of the pot and the lid. What you did was pour about 1/3 cup of vegetable oil into the bottom of the pot and park it on the lower half with the heater coil. There was no on/off switch. You just plugged the power cord into the wall and unplugged it later, when you were done.

After what seemed like an eternity, the oil began to smoke a bit. Then you tossed three unpopped kernels into the bubbling oil. These were “test kernels” as dad called them. I don’t know why he added three, as opposed to two or four or even seven. It was always three. Those test kernels would get to hissing and dancing around in the oil, as I once observed when dad picked me up and let me peer inside the popcorn popper.

He’d set the lid on top and after a few minutes we'd hear a pop! – followed by two pings, like the sound of BBs plinking an empty tin can. This was the much-anticipated signal that the popcorn machine at last was ready.

Into the popper dad poured 1/3 cup of corn kernels that he had carefully apportioned into a measuring cup. On went the lid. Dad would place his open palm over the knob on the lid and shake the popper by the handle on the side. Ah, soon enough those rapid-fire explosions would thump and rattle that metal popper.

As the popping began to subside, dad lifted the upper half, removed the lid and in one swift motion dumped the contents into a heavy peach-colored ceramic mixing bowl that mom used on Sundays to whip pancake batter. On movie night it pulled double-duty as a popcorn bowl.

Sometimes the bowl still showed signs of life as a few tardy kernels would pop and occasionally launch themselves out onto the floor.

Mom added a liberal sprinkling of Morton’s salt (with iodine) from the fat, blue cardboard cylinder featuring a little girl in a yellow raincoat with an umbrella shielding her from a downpour of sodium chloride – one of the more peculiar product logos I remember from years ago, yet obviously effective since I can still see that salt container in my mind.

On this particular evening mom carried the bowl into the living room and I ran along close behind, trailing the aroma. I scrambled up onto the sofa while dad diddled with the rabbit ears on the 19-inch television with the dark-green metal cabinet and the separate UHF and VHF dials on the front. After a moment, the tubes in the TV warmed up and the CBS eye glowed on the screen, followed by a lion – m’God, a lion! – roaring right at me.

I sank my greedy little fingers into the bowl, grabbed a handful of popcorn and began stuffing myself. Orchestral music welled up from the television and then a title card that dad had to read to me, because I was only three, after all, and had no clue my mind was about to be blown:

“The Wizard of Oz.”

It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen up to that point, especially the Emerald City itself, although the Technicolor parts of the production were lost on me because we had a black and white TV.

I didn’t know movies sometimes came in color. I didn't know anything about the world 47 years ago. Places like Vietnam were mentioned on the news, but that meant nothing to me. I have only vague recollections of names like Johnson, King, Bobby Kennedy.

But I knew we had one helluva popcorn popper that came out of the cupboard on movie nights.

And that was good enough for me, a three-year-old in ’66, sitting up way past his bedtime watching dreams spring to life in the dark.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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