When I was growing up, my dad was really into popcorn and he was really into gadgets. As a result, our house had a constant influx of the latest, greatest popcorn technology. It started with the plug-in hotplate-style cooker that you could flip upside down and use as a bowl. Later came the air-poppers, constantly being replaced as improvements were available: first one where the popcorn danced around inside the whole time, then one that tried to feed the popcorn into a nearby bowl, then one that actually did. Several new models appeared just out of hope that the butter tray in each one was better than the last (they never were.) In my house, we were using bags of microwave popcorn before most supermarkets even stocked them.
We even had a few novelty poppers. There was one that looked like an big steel clam on a stick. It was held over the fire and “made popcorn the way the pioneers did.” It didn’t work very well. Neither did the Orville Redenbacher decorative oil popper that looked like a toy popcorn trolley. After two failed attempts, we discovered it really was only decorative. It sat on the counter, proudly, for years, stained with burnt vegetable oil more immutable than the plastic underneath it.
So, because of all this, I went into college without even the faintest clue that popcorn could be created with anything other than a specialty tool, carefully crafted for this purpose. And so for the first two and a half years I was there, I bemoaned my lack of a popcorn maker. But then, midway through my Junior year, a man was to change all that.
He was new to the college, but older than a freshman. I didn’t know much about his background. He came from a northern part of the mid-west, like Wisconsin or The Dakotas. He didn’t say much, but he always had a congenial smile on his face: the sort generated by the glow of inner peace. He was a big guy, a lug would be a good term. Large enough to rip a tree out of the ground, but soft enough to look cuddly.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember his name. Such an even-keeled guy didn’t stand out: He didn’t laugh much, or ever get angry. He was probably a good student, but I didn’t have any classes with him. And he didn’t last long. Like so many others that came to my school and realized the advertising was better than the product, he probably only lasted a semester. I didn’t take notice of him until one night, as I was sitting in the commons area of the small cabin-like dorm I lived in (and he did not), he walked in and told me he was going to make some popcorn and would I like any.
Would I? I really don’t think he expected me to jump out of my seat and crowd in the small kitchen with him. After I shoved my way in, I scanned the room for the popcorn maker. It was important, see, because the type of machine he had would tell me what sort of popcorn I was going to be enjoying in a few scant minutes. But, much to my confusion, there was nothing there.
I waited for a moment while he screwed with a large pot, much too big to melt butter in. Still, he was a big guy. He might have wanted that much butter. But I was completely unprepared for the next moment–which I can still see in my mind’s eye–when he dumped a little olive oil and a handful of kernels directly into the pot.
I immediately saw how it would work—much like any oil popper I’d ever used—but I still couldn’t believe it. I made him show me every step. I did again the next night. And the night after that, I had him guide me as I did it.
It became a routine of ours, and for a while we were two peas in a pod: Strangers, with little-to-nothing in common except his knowledge and my desire for it. I remember smiling in a way that made my cheeks hurt every evening when we headed to the kitchen. I remember a little game we made up, leaving the lid off until the first kernel popped, and then trying to catch it in the air. And trying to get the lid on before the rapid-fire explosion that was soon to follow. We rarely succeed in either, I’m sure there’s decaying popcorn in the cracks of that kitchen to this day.
I wasn’t a simple person, and I wasn’t given to simple pleasures. I’m still not. But this man, lost to me now, lent me his world for a few short months and I’ve never lost the insight that came with it. Or forgot how far two people can go with just one simple thing in common.