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Rachel Ray Owes Me A Frying Pan
Peter Tatara - November 12, 2007

As a kid, I loved popcorn. I have fuzzy memories of the days before microwaves and my father making the stuff in a great steel pot and of my time in the Boy Scouts and Jiffy Pop exploding over an open fire. Then, once microwaves hit the scene, I remember eating at least a bag a day. Eventually, I'd become obese. Years would pass. I'd go to college and get a job. I'd trim down. I'd get a girlfriend who loved popcorn as much as the young me, only she had a smoking hot body and never knew anything about popcorn but the microwave variety.

Then, one day, when shopping for crap at Target, I found a pile of Jiffy Pop in their clearance section. Instantly, I flung a few containers into my cart. My girlfriend, though, scratched her head, having no clue what the dumpy metal things were. Venturing home, I immediately popped one atop the oven as my girlfriend looked on in abject disbelief and horror. If you're like my girlfriend and have never seen Jiffy Pop before, it's essentially a cheap frying pan with a layer of aluminum foil folded over the top and some popcorn sealed inside. As the popcorn heats up, the foil, pushed up into a giant dome, keeps the popcorn just shy of a messy eruption.

When we ate the Jiffy Pop, I was reintroduced to the long-forgotten -- and much superior taste -- of stove-top popcorn. Quickly, my Jiffy Pop rations were depleted, and on my next trip to Target, there wasn't any Jiffy Pop on the shelves. I looked through my local stores for more, only to always exit empty-handed. But, then, I asked myself why I was looking for Jiffy Pop at all. Why couldn't I just make popcorn like dad?

I went on another expedition, this time for popcorn never destined for the microwave -- popcorn in ye olde jars. One local market had some in stock, and I quickly snapped up as much as I could carry home. I produced the largest pot in my kitchen, coated the bottom with oil, and poured on in a layer of kernels. Then, the heat on, I set down the lid and started shaking the whole concoction. A minute passed. Two minutes. Three. Then, a pop. Then, two. Then, all at once, an overpowering roar. Steam spilled up from under the lid and an aroma impossible to produce in a microwave filled my nose.

When the popping subsided, I tossed a thin snowfall of salt atop the kernels, and sat down with the pot before my TV. The taste was warm, rich, crunchy, and fluffy, with countless more depth, texture, flavor, and character than you get from a microwave. And, with a jar running 1/20th of what a box of the microwave stuff costs (and producing 50 times more), stove-top popcorn doesn't just taste better, it's damn better on the wallet.

Since the start of my popcorn renaissance, a heaping pot's become a Saturday night staple (more often than not while watching the BBC's Torchwood). This week, though, when shopping for groceries, I stumbled upon a box of microwave kettle corn and pondered if I could reproduce this atop my oven. (As I child, while I initially reached for whatever microwaveable popcorn claimed to have the most authentic real butter flavor, after my first bite of the sweet and salty taste of kettle corn, I was instantly enamored.) Sure, I thought, I must be able to make this. I mean, it's kettle corn. A pot atop an oven seemed pretty close to a kettle to me.

Google quickly referred me to celebrity chef Rachel Ray. Rachel Ray's website had a super simple recipe. To make kettle corn, according to Ms. Ray, all I needed to do was add 1/4 cup of sugar to my pot as soon as my oil started popping.

I was shocked. I thought that there had to be more to making kettle corn than just throwing sugar into my pot, but thinking back to kettle corn's colonial origins, I told myself that making kettle corn had to be simple. So, heat on, oil in my biggest caldron, and popcorn poured in, I waited for the oil to begin to sizzle and snap. Once it did, I sprinkled in my sugar. The lid back on, I continued to cook the popcorn as usual. I had a pretty big smile on my face when the popping stopped. I used to love kettle corn, and I couldn't believe making it was as easy as this. As I sat down for this week's episode of Torchwood, though, my smile turned to a frown. The popcorn didn't taste bad -- it just didn't taste like kettle corn. Warm, rich, crunchy, and fluffy, it was everything stove-top popcorn's supposed to be. It just wasn't sweet. Where'd all the sugar that I dumped into the thing go?

As I ate my way down the bottom, I hoped I wouldn't find what I knew would be there.

At the bottom of my pot, fused to the steel, was layer of sugar turned solid and black. I knew Rachel Ray's recipe was too good to be true. I knew it couldn't work, but I had hoped it would somehow turn out alright. Hope sucks. So, here I am with an expensive pot rendered rubbish by a slick of incinerated sugar and only Rachel Ray to blame. If anyone knows her, please tell me, as I'd to send her my pot and ask for a new one.

(An irrelevant side note: Both Rachel Ray and I are from Upstate New York and a friend of mine met a hooker who claimed to be Rachel Ray's cousin at a bar in Albany.)

Now, I know you don't know Rachel Ray, and I know you don't care about me cooking popcorn, either, and that's the meta-text I'm using to justify this story. Whether it's Ms. Ray or my childhood popcorn addition, both are pretty pointless. You couldn't care less, and -- honestly -- neither could I. This story as airy as both popcorn and Rachel Ray, I'll admit the effort was lacking and even the title isn't right. Rachel Ray Owes Me A Frying Pan? There was no frying pan in this story. Why's it in the title, then? Probably because I liked how it sounded didn't care beyond that. I just didn't try at all.

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