December 16, 2007

Little the kitchen

No plans had been made for Christmas Eve at home, so everyone had much to do. In the kitchen Laura was popping corn in the iron kettle set into a hole of the stove top from which she had removed the stove lid. She put a handful of salt into the kettle; when it was hot she put in a handful of popcorn. With a long-handled spoon she stirred it, while with the other hand she held the kettle's cover to keep the corn from flying out as it popped. When it stopped popping she dropped in another handful of corn and kept on stirring, but now she need not hold the cover, for the popped white kernels stayed on top and kept the popping kernels from jumping out of the kettle.

from These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When Naomi of Straight into Bed, Cakefree and Dried announced that the theme for Retro Recipe Challenge #10 was Story Book Food, I knew I was going to turn to the Ingalls clan for inspiration.

A bit of background for my non-American audience: Born in the 'big woods' of Wisconsin in 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the "Little House" series, a lightly fictionalized account of her family's life on the American frontier in the late nineteenth century; chronicling their migration from Wisconsin through Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota in search of the American dream. When NBC decided to televise the story in 1974 with Michael Landon playing Charles "Pa" Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert in the role of our heroine, Laura Ingalls became an American icon.

Much of Laura's story focuses on food: hunting, growing and harvesting it, losing it to natural disaster, cooking or preserving it, sharing it with family and friends.

When they were gone, Mrs. Boast took a full paper bag from under the dishes. "It's a surprise" she told Laura. "Popcorn! Rob doesn't know I bought it.
They smuggled the bag into the house and hid it in the pantry, whispering to tell Ma what it was. And later, when Pa and Mr. Boast were absorbed in checkers, quietly they heated fat in the iron kettle and poured in a handful of the shelled popcorn...
Ma dipped the snowy kernels from the kettle to the milkpan, and Laura carefully salted them. They popped another kettleful, and the pan would hold no more. Then Mary and Laura and Carrie had a plateful of the crispy, crackly melting-soft corn, and Pa and Ma and Mr. and Mrs. Boast sat around the pan, eating and talking and laughing, till chore-time and suppertime and the time when Pa would play the fiddle.
from By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

So I reached into my trove of childhood favorites, pulled out The Little House Cookbook (published in 1979 by Barbara Muhs Walker) and started paging through it. I wanted something quintessentially Laura, but with Christmas rapidly approaching I couldn't spend a lot of time on this project. Pancake men would have to wait. Same with Vanity Cakes and the holiday Heart Shaped Cakes. It's 60 degrees in California, so Molasses-on-Snow Candy won't work either.

Wait...what's this? Popcorn? Sure... I can make popcorn.

Or so I thought until I went shopping, and learned that in the grocery stores of 21st century America, microwave popcorn reigns supreme. It took trips to five stores to find popcorn of the 'old fashioned' variety... and the best I could do there was a jar of Orville Reddenbacher.

I used my 14 quart stockpot as a makeshift kettle and followed the "Golden Years" method:

For 6 quarts of popped corn, you will need:
3 handfuls coarse salt (kosher or pickling salt) (3/4 cup)
3 handfuls popping corn (3/4 cup)
1/4 pound butter (optional)

1 5-6 quart kettle, with lid
1 6 quart pan
1 tin cup (for melting butter, if using)

Cover the bottom of the kettle with salt (about 1/2 cup). Using two kernels as a test, cover and heat the kettle until they pop. Remove them, add a handful of popping corn, and cover. Return to heat and take off cover only after popping noise stops.

Try Laura's method (stirring then adding more kernel while popped corn serves as a cover) only if your kettle is at least 8 inches deep. Otherwise, spoon the popped corn into the pan, throw away any unpopped kernels, and replenish the coarse salt. Repeat until all corn is popped. Serve in bowls with a shaker of table salt. (Or, like Almanzo's family, melt the butter in the tin cup, pour it over the full pan of corn, sprinkle with table salt and toss lightly before serving).

The result? No waste: every single kernel popped. And cleanup was a breeze. Rinse kettle. Dry kettle. Done.

In terms of taste: if you're looking for that chemical tasting "movie theater butter", look elsewhere. But if you want a bit of the sweet corn flavor (yes, even Orville has sweet corn flavor... heaven knows how much better a less industrial popcorn would taste) with a bit of salty contrast, sit down and join me for a bowl...

From the archives, last year today I shared my picks for Menu for Hope III.

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Baking Soda said...

Real childhood memories! My mom sent me to a class party once with a garbage bag full of home-popped popcorn! I was slightly embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. Turns out it was the hit on the party!

Question: You don't use any oil on the bottom of the pan?

MissMeliss said...

Found you via Holidailies.

I love the Little House books - they were favorites when I was a child, and became more real to me after actually living in South Dakota, very near DeSmet (the Little Town on the Prairie). My husband and I were married in the courthouse in Brookings where Laura and Almanzo's marriage was registered.

And popcorn: such a simple treat. My mother still uses a kettle (she lives in Mexico), and I remember trying to make the lid "pop off" when I was a kid.

Great post.

Mary said...

I LOVED reading the Little House on the Prarie books! In fact I first thought of these with the Retro Recipe Challenge, but all I could remember was the molasses on the snow candy...