According to my daughter’s calendar, January 19 is National Popcorn Day in the United States. In honor of this little known holiday, we recently unearthed a box of forgotten popcorn ears from the pantry shelf and tested their kernels for readiness. Picked back in October when the weather turned wet, these precious ears have been drying indoors for months, their skins peeled back and their silks removed.
Choosing to grown popcorn last spring was somewhat of a whim. I once spent a week WWOOFing on an organic maple syrup farm in rural Ontario. After a long day tapping syrup lines and getting covered in sweet rain from the sugar shack, I joined my host family in a century-old farmhouse cleaning and popping homegrown popcorn for a bedtime snack. Ever since then, I’ve considered homegrown popcorn a symbol of familial togetherness and good old-fashioned fun. (Their three kids were very excited by the activity. I was also young and impressionable).
Growing our own crop was another matter. For one thing, our cool, wet springs aren’t ideal for popcorn germination. The variety we chose–pink popcorn, from West Coast Seeds–is untreated and can rot easily if the soil isn’t warm enough. In addition, the maturing cobs are controlled by the amount of heat the plant absorbs as it grows (called “heat units”) rather than the size of the plant or the length of days. Heat isn’t a problem mid-summer in this area, but spring and fall tend to be questionable.
To help germination along, we started some of this year’s corn crop in greenhouse flats. We planted the remaining seeds outside at the same time. For some weeks after we transplanted the indoor seedlings, they had a definite head start. Eventually, however, both crops grew so fast it was hard to tell them apart.
We planted the recommended four-rows to ensure pollination. We also jiggled the stalks when the spirit moved us. The result was not the two robust ears-per-stalk that we expected, but rather one smallish, pinkish cob each. Still, we were excited to see signs of maturity despite the challenges. The telltale blush of pink kernels indicates, if not a ripe ear, at least an ear well on its way to becoming popcorn. And while we would have preferred to leave the ears on the stalks to fully ripen and dry, the weather turned wet and off they came.
Harvesting popcorn in less-than-ideal conditions can look many ways. We chose to experiment, and left several ears on plants hung outside, under cover. The rest came inside and sat around on various cookie sheets inside their skins until mildew prompted us to peel them back. Eventually the kernels felt loose enough to remove them from their cobs completely. (Some people will hasten this process by placing cobs or kernels in the oven on a low temperature).
And here is where my memories of my WWOOFing family return. Kernels loose enough to come off the cob with ease indicate popcorn that is finally ready to pop. Back in that Ontario farmhouse, I learned to hold the cob and twist my hands in opposite directions. Presto! The kernels cascade to the table or bowl with little effort. This week my children repeated those actions, equally excited by the activity. “I want to do some more,” little sister kept repeating, after our share of the cobs were all bare. “Let’s do it again!”
The resulting treat was fluffy and delicious–definitely worth repeating if only for the pure joy of growing something delicious in your backyard.
Favorite Popcorn Topping
1/2 cup melted butter (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
Sprinkle over a large bowl of popped corn (about 1/3 cup of popped kernels). Mix and share.