At home, though, I'm all about the popcorn. I blame my mother who used to regularly walk out of the kitchen with a bowl of it for the family to share while watching a rented movie. There were many earnest discussions about just how long to set the microwave for each individual brand, in the hopes of popping every last kernel. I even picked up her habit of sucking the remaining salt and butter off the last few kernels at the bottom that didn't make it. A habit that grossed my dad and brother out, but which we continue to this day.
And if I go back even further in my memory. Back two houses from New Jersey to Queens, to a time when I was so small I needed a chair to reach the stove, I remember watching in fascination as my mom quickly shook the Jiffy Pop above the flame. Her hand in an oven mitt, the wire hanger-like handle, the soft foil covering that would grow and expand like a bloated belly with each pop. I'd beg for a chance and finally I got it, tiny hand tucked inside the giant glove, wrapped around the thin, hot handle. "You have to keep shaking it," she'd instruct, guiding my arm in the motion. Funny how I don't remember the taste of that kind, just the heat and the science.
A decade and a half later, I was in Italy. Alone in a country where, for the first time, I didn't know the language. It was just a few hours after the tiny taxi had dropped me and my 7 suitcases in the middle of a tiny piazza. Unpacked bags stacked around the apartment and I curled up on the couch--a standard version from the new Ikea that had recently opened in Tuscany, much to the chagrin and outrage of purists who claimed the paint-by-color furniture didn't belong in these ancient homes. I was too tired to care, dying to go to sleep but waiting for a man named Roberto who was, according to the rental agency, coming that night at 8 to show me the hidden switches and quirks of my new home.
I was hungry, too, because since arriving I'd been too anxious and exhausted to leave the apartment. The treats I'd saved from my Air France flight were gone. So instead I smoked through the pack of cigarettes I'd purchased on my Paris layover (emblazoned in big black bold letters with the phrase "Fumer Tue"), and poked around the kitchen. There were pots and knives (from Ikea), and a jumble of spices. the top shelf was covered in dozens of empty wine bottles left by the previous occupants. I didn't know yet that my roommates and I would more than triple the collection before we left. On the counter sat a glass bottle of olive oil and, inexplicably, a large mason jar filled with popcorn kernels.
There was no microwave, but remembering the Jiffy Pop, I hunted around for a suitable pot. I drizzled in olive oil and a handful of kernals, estimating all my measurements. The lid fit tightly and I set it over the stove. Soon the familiar noise filled the room, loud and violent inside the metal pot. I shook, for good measure, and kept going until the popping slowed and I removed the lid.
I grabbed the salt shaker and went back to the couch, where I salted and ate right from the pot while watching MTV Italia and waiting for Roberto.
Popcorn became a staple when I lived in Florence. We had been bequeathed a seemingly endless supply, and my roommates and I often turned to it when money was tight (and it was always tight). First we ate it plain, just olive oil and salt, but soon we added things. Grated pecorino and black pepper was a favorite. As was cumin and cayenne. Occasionally I ate it with milk and sugar, and called it "the poor girl's corn flakes."
For this version, a new favorite, I added smoked paprika, cayenne, and salt. I started with plain buttered microwaved popcorn, but you can start however you like. If you've never tried it, I recommend doing it on the stove at least once. There's just something awesome about it.
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1 large bowl (about 5-6 cups) freshly popped buttered popcorn
1 teaspoon Smoked Spanish Paprika
1/2 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
salt, to taste
In a large container with a cover (you can use a pot with a lid or a Tupperware-style container), combine the hot popcorn with the spices. Cover and shake until fully coated.
Salt to taste and serve.