Popcorn: A Long Term Relationship

Naomi Ulsted is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the director of a Job Corps Center vocational training program for underprivileged youth. Her writing has been published in Salon and LUNA LUNA.


I’ve sworn off popcorn twice in my life. Once I made the unfortunate decision to detox, having purchased $250 worth of protein shakes from my sister. I didn’t have popcorn for a month. Nor did I have much of anything else except for the protein shakes that tasted like my shoe. The second time I swore off popcorn was when a tiny popcorn shell lodged in the back of my throat. The sharp flake stuck in my uvula, like a sliver in an elephant’s foot. I ate peanut butter and bread, hoping the sticky wads would drag it out. I stuck my finger down my throat and gagged. Eventually, after several days, I blasted it out with a water pic. I posted on Facebook that my relationship with popcorn was over. I didn’t eat it for three months, which is a pretty serious separation for me and popcorn.

When I was growing up, my family never went out to movies. With five kids, we couldn’t afford to visit the theater and buy movie popcorn. Instead, a couple times a month my dad would come home with a rented videotape of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and a two liter bottle of Coke. We opened the hideaway couch into a bed and piled on, my mother holding the baby and the rest of us squished together among the cushions. The hard metal frame of the bed jabbed into our ribs or elbows, so the best place to be was in the sagging middle. Since we didn’t all quite fit, the two kids on the outside had to deal with the frame. Quit kicking me! Move over. I’m getting squished! My dad bring us giant bowls of popcorn and tall glasses of Coke over ice and we’d be quiet, give each other space, and watch our movie. On those Friday nights, my mother would stop glaring at my dad, my dad would stop hiding in his room pretending we didn’t exist, and it felt like we were a normal family who had some fun sometimes.

Now that I have children, our Friday nights echo those of my childhood. I come home from work with a DVD from Redbox and my kids look forward to “movie parties” with popcorn and a “special drink” of Root Beer. I pour myself a healthy glass of my own special drink, generally merlot. When I was in my ‘20s, I liked to imagine myself as spontaneous and unpredictable. A vagabond. But now I find comfort in my routines. While I can hear the beginning dialogue of Ice Age: The Meltdown, which I could recite in my sleep, I turn on the air popper. When I had only my first boy, I made the popcorn in a well-worn pan, holding him on my hip while I shook the pan over the burner. He giggled as my movements jostled him back and forth, and I tried to think of it as getting some exercise. Once I had two children eating popcorn, however, we had to upgrade. While the air popper heats up, I pour the drinks. While it’s popping, I melt the butter. We have three bowls of popcorn so we can all have our own and there’s no fighting. If I try to share with my little one, he admonishes me for eating more than my share. “Mama!” he wails, “eat your own popcorn,” and places his hands over his bowl. I have a system of pouring the butter, then shaking the salt, and then hefting the bowl slightly several times, so the salt is mixed in. Then repeat. I have the procedure down pat. If popcorn making were an Olympic event, I’d be a strong competitor.

My kids and I once visited some friends and we all sat on their floor and watched Star Wars projected up on their wall. They brought out two bags of microwave popcorn to share between the six of us. My kids looked up at me, stricken. That wasn’t near enough, and microwave popcorn tasted weird. On the way home, my kids and I scoffed at these popcorn amateurs with their paltry offerings. On our movie nights, the three of us sit together on the sofa where we all fit. My husband pauses his video game to snag handfuls of popcorn from the boys, generating shrieks of protest. The flow of the evening is soft and easy. None of us ever, on any night, pretend like the others don’t exist. My husband and I don’t hide in our bedrooms reading while our children grow up. The other night I watched my boys as they burst out laughing during Despicable Me. It might have been the second glass of merlot, or the exhaustion I feel after a tough week at work, but I had one of those moments where you know you’ve got something good. You did something right. Movie nights with my boys aren’t going to last forever, but those times will morph into something else. Which will probably involve popcorn.