“I notice you don’t have a microwave.”

My guest was young, only 21, the son of an old friend. I am not sure why he registered the absence of a microwave. Perhaps because he hoped to reheat the large pizza I had ordered the night before precisely because I knew I would have two young guests. I said I had never owned a microwave when I was young, not on purpose, and therefore had never developed a need for one. I use the oven or a double-boiler to reheat things, which I find superior. I know tricks for thawing things quickly and safely, if necessary, but I primarily try to anticipate my thawing needs.

And what about popcorn? Well, I make it myself in lidded saucepan, following the rules that my father set down long ago: Use just enough oil to coat the pan and turn the heat to high.* Add three kernels. When they pop, add just enough corn to cover the surface and turn down the heat to medium, shaking continuously. Keep turning down the heat as the popping slows.**

I assume there is an entire generation of people now who don’t know how to make popcorn. What else is lost to the ages? What no-longer needed skills do you possess? The bottom line is that I always think of my father when I make popcorn and that makes me happy.

*I grew up in a neighborhood where all the stoves were electric, a detail that I am kicking myself for not using in THE MOST DANGEROUS THING, as it would have been vexing to one of the characters who prides herself on her cooking.

**To my father’s instructions, I have added one change — keeping the lid slightly ajar.


35 thoughts on “Popcorn

  1. Your post brought back memories. Your father gave good instructions as that is how I made it for my kids and they loved it - and why not, minus all the chemicals in the micrwave popcorn and the dryness of air popped popcorn! Now, it wasn’t totally healthy, the kids would wash it down with a bottle of coke. C’est la vie!

  2. I can ride horses, shoot a bow and arrow (and guns), sail, row, and make my own ink and several colors of fabric dye out of wild plants, whip up a meanass backstrap of venison, and have basically memorized all of Euell Gibbons. And can navigate a deb-party receiving line.

    So I am perfectly suited to life in the 18th Century. Swiss Family Cornelia.

  3. OH, on the stovetop is the best way to make popcorn!

    I remember when we got a giant microwave in the 70′s. I was intrigued. I read all the instructions in the manual and started making scrambled eggs in the microwave, every day. It took a while before I realized they didn’t taste so great that way!

  4. Have you ever gotten mail where the standard size sheet is folded in quarters and stuffed into an envelope? Young adults seem to know more about how to use a FedEx envelope, but not a business size envelope.

    Last year I got rid of my microwave. I haven’t missed it. I married my now ex-husband in 1981 partly because he had a microwave oven. It was what I missed the most when we separated.

  5. Microwave popcorn is nasty. I make mine on the stove too, my only difference is that I put more oil than your Dad did, otherwise I do the 3 kernels pre-pop too. And then I melt real butter in the hot pan and pour it over the popcorn. Damn, I want some now.

    As for skills no longer needed today: though my parents had one, I’ve never had a dishwasher and I don’t want one. It takes just as much work to load and unload them as it does to wash the dishes by hand. On the other hand, I have a high tolerance for dirty dishes stacked in the sink.

  6. Dinosaur skills: use a slide rule, change a needle on a turntable, darn a sock, and make mac and cheese starting with a roux.

  7. Several months ago, I was in line at the grocery store behind two young women. One said to the other, “I didn’t even know you could make hamburgers at home until I started watching Rachael Ray.”

  8. I’m 50-50 on those dinosaur skills. I changed a needle or two in my day and I make a mean mac-and-cheese from scratch. But I can’t darn a sock.

  9. Sadly, my kids have grown up not knowing the pleasure of walking off of an airplane and having a family member or close friend greet them right at the gate.

    And who under the age of 30 knows how to load 35mm film into a camera?

  10. I can write with a fountain pen. My dad wouldn’t let me leave home to live on my own unless I could change a tire, change a fan belt and drink Scotch and I still can do all three. I can change a fuse. If the power goes out, I can cook in the fireplace. I can change a typewriter ribbon. I always make mac-and-cheese from scratch.

  11. Sean,

    Years ago, I kept suggesting that as a story idea to friends still in journalism. Meeting near the security entrance just isn’t the same.

  12. I used to make stovetop popcorn in a wok-worked great. I’m guessing I could, with a little practice, still do a hard segue with 45′s on paired radio turntables. I can safely clean rust from cast iron; add, subtract, multiply, and divide without a calculator (but have forgotten how to extract square roots); and bisect an angle using compass and straightedge. I’m pretty sure I could hold Cornelia’s reins while she shoots dinner, skin and gut it, and clean her horse afterwords :)

  13. I’m still using a perfectly good 35mm camera although I’ve discovered it’s harder to find film now; I don’t have a dishwasher and don’t miss it; and my dad taught me how to sharpen knives on a whetstone, a skill I haven’t needed in awhile. Sadly, I still use the microwave-but only for heating, not cooking.

  14. I think of darning socks as good economic sense when sock yarn can cost up to $30 for a single pair, and my tile floors are hard on knitted heels (I only wear handknit socks during the cold months). I took an absolutely wonderful class on darning a couple of years ago, and it’s actually very easy to do.

    I learned to wash and card raw fleece because it looked like fun. Ditto spinning yarn, which I can do with a pencil stuck through a half of a potato, though I’d much rather use my wheel.

  15. I have young mothers in my family (I’m 64) who make their children learn how to tie shoes before they can have their first pair of velcro strap tennis shoes! Evidently the grade schools are full of kids who cannot tie shoes because they’ve never had shoes that tied!

  16. You made me almost cry while remembering popped corn using some 1960′s device we had growing up and then my brother + mom + dad crowding around the bowl watching Real People.


  17. And then there was Jiffy Pop . . . we were seldom allowed to have that. My father was also very anti-Mr. Bubble for reasons I still don’t understand.

  18. We never did Jiffy Pop either, but did have the popcorn that had the cooking oils in an attached bag. And as you know, soon we will no longer be able to make a phone call to get the current weather conditions. That is causing major angst in our household.

    No Mr. Bubbles??? Why else would a kid want to take a bath?

  19. I am glad to say that I have some of those “antique” skills as well, but the closer I get to 60, the harder some of them are to use! Thank goodness popcorn making isn’t hard on the knees!

  20. Most of you seem to have skills that are still very very useful (when would making mac’n'cheese not be in fashion? Or drinking scotch? )! I would join Cornelia’s army without looking back. She knows good stuff.

    I can dial a rotary phone. I can use a piece of carbon paper to make a copy of a document that I am typing (oh, that’s a double one!). And I can sing the alto part of “Deck the Halls” that I learned in 7th grade chorus. La la la la la, la la la la la la la. Laaaaaah, la la, la la la la la la la la.

  21. Sean, our household is in a twit about no longer getting time and weather on the telephone, also. It is so nice to be able to lie in bed, pick up the cordless phone, press auto dial and be tuned into the day ahead.

    Macaroni and Cheese the Consumer Reports way in a single pan.
    Sharpen a knife on a whetstone.
    Wash dishes without a machine.
    Add, subtract, divide and sometimes multiply in my head.
    In the summer, the microwave is a blessing.

  22. In all honesty, I don’t miss the old way of making popcorn. It was time consuming and messy.

    I’ve lost almost all ability to write in cursive.

    I never did learn how to use the choke on a car, even after my grandfather jerry-rigged one on a battered Mercury my parents drove for a time.

    I don’t miss pay phones at all, though I remember reading an early 87th Precinct recently and thinking “Why doesn’t Carella just use his phone?” Two scenes later, the phone company technician is explaining how hard it is to trace calls on single-party lines that connect automatically rather than through an operator.

    Last operator I talked to who wasn’t directory assistance (another relic now that I have a Droid) was in 1984.

  23. Driving a stick-shift in Baltimore means my cars are virtually theft-proof. When I had to buy a new car last summer, I considered only stick shifts, which narrowed my options considerably.

    Oh, and a young valet at a country club a few years back was SO impressed that this middle-aged lady drove a manual car.

    Jim, my way of making popcorn takes about 5 minutes and splatters just a little oil. My way of making scrambled eggs however . . .

  24. Okay, I think I’ve got it with the link here. Click where it says “web” above. That is a very long cooking recipe! But adding the cream sounds good.

  25. Laura, scrambled eggs are required to be messy, a fact my stepson has gleefully picked up on. (Made for a great Mother’s Day.)

  26. I can use a compass to find my way if I’m lost and I still love the feeling of actually winding up my wrist watch. I can still drive a stick shift and remember the days when an automatic transmission and a radio/sound system weren’t standard equipment and you had to pay more to get them.

  27. Laura, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, “I’m your zombie.” and I also drive stick. So much more fun, downshifting into a turn.

  28. The list of life skills I’m missing is a hefty one. I’m lazy, scatterbrained, and generally happy with whatever situation I’m in and find no reason to posesses a skill to change it.

    BUT, if ever put in a situation to NEED to learn something, I’m a ridiculously quick study and have an almost superhuman ability to pick up new skills for a particular situation (which I almost always forget how to do once I leave that situation). The only exception to this is dancing. I will never be able to leanr how to dance.

    I do know how to drive a stick shift though.

  29. It does take a remarkable amount of time, but there’s something very peaceful about standing at the stove, breaking up curds.

    I add cheese and minced jalapeno, then eat them in tortillas with hot sauce.

  30. I will try and make those scrambled eggs and they will be known as Laura Lippman’s eggs from this day forward. I love adding feta and spinach to my egg concoctions (if there is no bacon with a half mile of me).

  31. I can do math on paper, write in cursive, look up facts without using the Internet, and I know to always cut the blue wire while disarming a nuclear device.

  32. For the record, I love washing dishes by hand. Any time I’m trying to work through something in my head, I’ll just dig into the sink and wash what’s there. I’ve also been known to wash clean dishes just for the thrill of it.

    It is nice having the dishwasher for holidays though. I hate washing Thanksgiving or Easter dishes.

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