Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How To Save A Life

I once had a boss who banned all of his underlings from microwaving popcorn at work because it made the office smell like a movie theater, an aroma most people find irresistibly enticing but one that he felt projected a less than professional environment (which we were more than capable of doing all on our own without the popcorn). At the time, my colleagues and I thought he was exhibiting classic symptoms of a Napoleonic complex. Years later I can only thank him for saving my life.

Apparently there is a condition out there called “popcorn lung,” which sounds like a spoof of a side effect—along the lines of giant eyeballs, hotdog fingers and four-hour erections—but is a legitimate diagnosis just like Restless Leg Syndrome.

Popcorn lung first manifested itself among factory workers who handle the artificial buttery flavor that goes into microwave popcorn. And now a consumer, who ate several bags of the stuff on a daily basis, has developed the potentially fatal disease.

Now, I’m not here to question the existence of or the health hazard posed by popcorn lung. But I am here to ask why anyone would eat that much popcorn.

Don’t get me wrong. I love popcorn. I make it whenever I sit down to watch the Oscars, “Dancing With the Stars” or a “Gilmore Girls” rerun—sort of a guilty pleasure two-for-one deal. It’s also what I eat for dinner whenever I’m feeling down in the dumps, and usually chase the meal with a handful of chocolate chips. But several times a day? I’m surprised the disease isn’t called “popcorn colonic.”

I think I know what happened here. Some dude bought a microwave and discovered the appliance had no legitimate use other than boiling water for hot cocoa and preparing the aforementioned popcorn. But by then he had thrown out his receipt, the packing box and any of the other myriad requirements necessary for a refund. So he made the best of a bad situation and decided that in order to get his money’s worth out of the microwave, he would live on nothing but popcorn.

This is why I don’t have a microwave. It’s not nearly as necessary as people think. Anything a microwave can do, an oven or a tea kettle can do better. Slower perhaps but then again no one ever came down with lung disease from demonstrating a little patience.

Predictably, manufacturers are now promising to eliminate the noxious chemical in microwave popcorn (so if it’s not all that essential, why was it ever there in the first place?). I would proffer an alternate solution—bring back the old-style popcorn popper.

Living sans microwave, I’ve personally relied on an air popper for the majority of my adult life. I recently upgraded to a Cuisinart when my trusty friend sprang a leak in its, for lack of a more technical term, butter-melting compartment. While I don’t want this to turn into a product review of the Cuisinart, which operates via some sort of “stir rod,” let me just say that it’s now taking up space in a landfill having failed to fulfill its promise to reliably turn kernels into popcorn.

I searched for a replacement, but much like videocassettes, which have been consigned to the great obsolete technology burial ground in the sky, popcorn poppers have become a rare commodity. Sure, if it’s nostalgia you want, you can locate a Joe Namath model online at any of a number of collectibles sites. But if you’re in the market for a modern air popper, happy hunting.

I came up empty handed at various small appliance outlets. The new season of “Dancing With the Stars” loomed. I started to feel desperate, precisely the kind of condition that calls for popcorn.

And then one weekend we were shopping at Target for Kleenex, toilet paper and plastic sandwich bags—which mushroomed into floor cleaner, a mop, beer and a half dozen other items I don’t remember placing in the cart—when we came across the Chefmate. $15.99. I snapped it up.

Tuesday night and a “Gilmore Girls” rerun rolled around (as soon as the show’s finale re-airs, I will gladly wash my hands of the CW network—killer of “GG” and “Everwood”—once and for all). I was psyched to take my new air popper out for a spin. I measured kernels to the “fill” line, placed a pat of butter in the butter-melting compartment and excitedly flipped the switch to “on.”

Mayhem ensued.

While the Chefmate looks like an air popper, I promise you that it’s not. It’s a volcanic death machine. The top of the appliance is so poorly angled that swirling kernels are ejected from the appliance without coming close to popping. As white hot projectiles shot across my kitchen, I grabbed the Chefmate and tilted it backwards, hoping to keep some of the kernels in the belly of the beast long enough to pop. The barrel became clogged and the appliance started to smoke. I uprighted the Chefmate, at which point the thing blew its top and spewed the remaining kernels as far as the dining room. I happened to be wearing flip flops and one of the kernels lodged itself under my semi-bare foot. Burn cream was administered—I call the condition “popcorn toe.” I wound up settling for a bowl of rice and sent the Chefmate off to join its cousin the Cuisinart.

I wonder what they’re asking for the Joe Namath over there on eBay.


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