Light, bouncy, coated in a not-unpleasant buttery substance – but enough about Ben Mulroney, we’re here for the popcorn. And the Oscars. The TV is on, the show is starting, the celebrities are arriving on the red carpet – are the snacks ready yet? Popcorn and the movies go together like frocks and shoes, so tomorrow night’s Academy Awards ceremony seems like the perfect occasion for an all-star pop off. While Shelf Life waits for a glimpse of George Clooney, there’s just enough time to investigate the link between the movies and nature’s most entertaining food.
There are several theories about how popcorn-munching came to be an integral part of the moviegoing experience, but most food historians agree that the two came together during the Depression. In the thirties, popcorn was a popular street snack, due to its ability to fill hungry stomachs for only pennies a bag. The movies were another simple and inexpensive pleasure, as theatres provided a refuge where down-on-their-luck individuals could while away an entire day. When movie patrons started smuggling popcorn from street vendors to their seats, it was only a matter of time before popcorn concessions were set up inside cinemas. Today, popcorn sales are a mainstay of movie theatre profits. In their own way, the humble kernels are as important to the film business as PR budgets, or stars’ salaries. One day, Shelf Life believes that popcorn’s explosive talents will be recognized, and that the cavalcade of stars outside the Kodak Theatre will pay tribute to the greatest industry accessory of them all. So let’s join Ben and Tanya back on the red carpet – Ben, what’s the latest? “We’ve got the big names! Badgley Mischka. Vera Wang. Manolo Blahnik. And – Orville Redenbacher?”
No strangers to being buttered up are this week’s expert judges: Erin Dowse, proprietrix of boffo bistro The Old York Bar And Grill; chef Edward Levesque, owner of the Leslieville hot spot Edward Levesque’s Restaurant; and Paul Silva, Culinary Professor, George Brown Chef School, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars.
Smart Pop! 0 Trans Fat
4 X 31g Bags, NET 124g, $2.99
Erin: I sell popcorn at my son’s school fundraisers, and I confess I like the slightly crap stuff, with the butter flavour and lots of salt.
So I have some tolerance for lowbrow corn. Brand One smells like it should be yummy, but it isn’t. It’s not crunchy enough, and it doesn’t deliver the right taste. Remember when David Letterman hosted the Academy Awards? Things just weren’t the same.
TWO STARS **
Ed: Nowadays at the movies they give you a choice between Becel and that phony butter, so I guess that’s progress. I can’t taste any salt here, but that doesn’t bother me too much – you can always add your own. But the kernels look half-popped, and they’re soft. The bits of corn are sticking to the roof of my mouth. Brand One is okay but dull. Who’s the dullest person at the Oscars? I think I’ve got it – Jack Valenti.
Paul: If you make your own popcorn, there are some interesting things you can do. I’ve heard of a curry-type popcorn, using ghee, which is clarified butter from India. I would try five spice popcorn, with a bit of sesame oil. I’m not sure what I would do with Brand One – it has a very plain taste. Not much salt, not much flavour, and the texture is soft and gritty.
TWO STARS **
Brand One Total SIX STARS ******
Pop Secret 79% less fat, Butter flavour
3 X 85g Bags Net 255g, $2.99
Erin: This stuff is fun. No fake butter smell. My fingers aren’t too greasy. The colour is inviting, and the taste seems right, and I find
myself eating on and on and on. Brand Two is addictive. The best thing about this popcorn is that you don’t get an aftertaste, and the stuff at the bottom of the bowl tastes as good as the stuff on top.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS****1/2
Ed: Big pieces, and you get a nice generous portion. Not too yellow, not too salty, not too greasy. You really get your moneysworth here. Brand Two does a very good job of balancing the salt and the fake butter.
Paul: I remember Madonna used to talk about popcorn a lot. In her first year in New York she was apparently so broke that she ate nothing but popcorn. I always wondered: did she get scurvy? Which would explain some things. Anyway if she lived off this popcorn she’d probably do okay. I like Brand Two – it’s very clean and crisp. Everything is fresh and crunchy, and there’s a great corn aroma.
Brand Two Total THIRTEEN AND A HALF STARS *************1/2
Light Butter Flavour
3 X 85g Bags, 255g, $2.99
Erin: The kernels are very big with patches of yellow here and there – the colour is uneven. This product smells like butter that’s been
sitting out for a week in 80 degree heat. What is that taste? I don’t know what that is – maybe deep fried palm oil. The texture is crunchy, which is the only thing Brand Three has going for it.
Ed: Stale! Is this the cheapest brand? This popcorn is terrible – it tastes very plastic. It leaves too much flavour on the tongue, and it smells like rally industrial margarine. I love it. I’m kidding.
Paul: I think we’ve just about nailed how bad this product is. I’m trying to think of the worst movie in the world, which is where you
would find a bucket of this popcorn. The colour of Brand Three is day-glo orange, and it looks like it’s been scraped from the bottom of a Kraft dinner. It also smells like petrol.
Brand Three Total TWO STARS **
Organic Microwave Popcorn
6 X 99g Bags, Net 594g $9.99
available at health and specialty food stores
Erin: Eeeeww. I’m suspicious. Is this normal-ass popcorn, or some of that organic stuff? To me it doesn’t have any taste, except for the corn. Where’s the usual crap? Which I like, by the way: I’m hunting for the butter and salt, and not finding any. Put it this way: if you want to come and see Night At the Museum with me and my kid, and you show up with this healthy product, we might not sit with you.
Ed: Actually, I like this brand. This one tastes authentic, and I like the way the corn flavour is right in front. Brand Four is crunchier and cornier than the others. This is probably the most real thing we’ve eaten in the last half hour. If I was a hippie, I’d go for this popcorn. It smells like cardboard, though.
Paul: The kernels are a pale white colour, with a little bit of yellow here and there. Crunchy texture, decent flavour, evenly distributed salt. I like Brand Four, but I can’t give it full marks because some of the kernels are on the burnt side. The smell is interesting because you get a bit of charring, and some toasty highlights.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2
Brand Four Total SEVEN AND A HALF STARS *******1/2
Results: The envelope, please. Winning nominee Betty Crocker was pronounced the outstanding achievement in the snack category, and later that evening hooked up with Leonardo DiCaprio; the couple was immediately dubbed ‘Betteo’ and ‘DiCrockery’ by the press. Runner-up Bandito’s wasn’t too corny, while Orville Redenbacher claimed the third place award. Act 2 endured the worst of fates – it became a Hollywood loser. The greasy, unpalatable kernels descended into various low level industry jobs, eg. standing in for foam packing peanuts, and selling themselves in X-rated video stores.
Off The Menu: As with any awards shindig, this test featured a surprise or two. For starters, the judges’ top selection contains a small amount of trans fats. This was unexpected; Shelf Life anticipated that the panel’s A-list palates would identify and reject any partially hydrogenated offenders without mercy. Which is another thing that seals the relationship between the Oscars and a bowl of popcorn – both can be guilty pleasures.