Fishing & Boating in the Northwoods

The Popcorn Connection – and How I Found It

Popcorn in Ceramic Bowl

OK, OK… So, it’s not exactly a discovery. At least not in the same fashion as, say, Columbus discovering America or Fermilab discovering a new particle.  But my popcorn discovery –  at least to me – is almost as significant.  More on that later.

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A Little History

There are so many things in life that we routinely take for granted. It would be nearly impossible to even begin to make a list of them.  But there is one little seed, probably first grown in Mexico, that could easily top the list: popcorn.  History books (and online research) will tell you that popcorn has been around for many thousands of years all over the world.

Europeans learned about popcorn from Native Americans, who may have likely brought some of the stuff to the first Thanksgiving.  And although it is generally thought of as a snack to be enjoyed at movie theaters, I suspect that there is a rather large segment of the population who enjoy it on many other occasions.  I am definitely part of that segment. But my zeal for the fluffy white stuff (I don’t care so much for the yellow variety found at ball parks, theaters, etc.) has led me to become something of a popcorn fanatic, and I have searched high and low to find what I consider to be the tastiest and most tender variety.

Sunday Drives, Popcorn and Penny Candy

My story starts way back in the 1950s.  Our family did everything together. We never had a meal unless all four of us (my sister, me, and both my mom and dad) were present.  And it should be obvious to most who can remember the 50s, that back then there were no cell phones or electronic games. We mostly made up our own games, and we pretty much had to find our own form of entertainment.

reach home safely sign

Our black and white television (color TV had not been invented yet) was generally only turned on when my father watched the news, and never during dinner! Or maybe when the Lawrence Welk Show was on. Also, as a family, one of the things we did was to routinely take a drive on Sunday afternoon. Sunday was definitely family time.

The In-Between Store

There were far fewer cars on the roads back then and therefore little to no traffic and no congestion.  One of the most oft-taken excursions was the one that took us east to the town of Wheaton, IL.  On the east end of town at 111 ¼ Front St. was a very narrow little store. It was called “the In-between Store”, and it was always making fresh popcorn.  The place was, I think, run by two sisters.

In the front of the store was a selection of penny candy that would have driven most trick-or-treaters crazy…  In the back part of the store was a gas-fired popcorn popper. One of the sisters would turn the hand crank on the popcorn popper, turning out batches of the white ambrosia faster than you could shake a stick (a line that my father used to use – I have no idea where it came from).

The store, which opened in 1921, was in an alley way that was so narrow it was almost impossible for two people to pass each other coming into and leaving the store.  As I recall, a small bag of popcorn could be purchased for a dime.  A medium-size bag was 25 cents, and a large bag – which we always got – was only 75 cents.  We would usually get four of the small bags to eat on the way home, and then dive into the big bag later.  Now those were the days! The store is still there and now goes by the name of The Little Popcorn Store! They have some great T-shirts, ornaments, puzzles and more on their Etsy store.

The Mother Lode

In later years my mom would, on a very regular basis, make a huge batch of corn for all to share.  But of course, then came high school and college and times together were less frequent. So were the Sunday drives to Wheaton and other destinations.  None of us ever lost the taste for good popcorn. We just rarely got the time to enjoy it as a family.

And then, in 1972, my parents found the mother lode.  Returning from a trip to California and driving along Interstate 80, they stopped for gas at a small station and restaurant (called the Cove) near Moscow, Iowa.  My dad, noticing the many home-made pies on the counter, decided this would be a good place to have lunch (and dessert!) before continuing home to Illinois.

They happened to notice that the place also sold un-popped popcorn.  No, not the typical stuff of name-brand notoriety with which most folks are familiar. Just plain old popping corn from Iowa, sold in clear plastic bags.  They bought a big bag and brought it home to try.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Well, almost…

Road Trip

This was by far some of the best popcorn I had eaten since those long-past days of the Wheaton trips and “Popcorn Sundays”.  This corn was the pure white variety, tender as could be, medium in size and almost husk-less. One of the things that happens with most popcorn: when popped, the shell surrounding the seed breaks into two or three pieces.  The resulting pieces of husk get stuck beneath your tongue, between your teeth or in some other, inconvenient place in your mouth.  They are almost impossible to dislodge!

The other great thing about this corn was that, in every batch, almost every last kernel would pop… every time.  My parents were hooked, and so was I.  The only problem of course was that running out of this treasure required a trip to Iowa to replenish our source.  The good news was that 1) the Cove Restaurant was not that far away – less than four hours by car – and my father was never opposed to making the trip.

Suddenly, Not Quite the Same

My father died suddenly in 1976. Eating popcorn was somehow not quite the same after that, and there were no more trips to Iowa for many years.  Eventually, the trips resumed.  At least for me. Maybe I needed to have my popcorn fix, but I think that somehow it was more than that.  And it wasn’t just that the available popcorn was second rate, although most of what I could find in the local stores was just plain awful.

I think there was a connection that needed to be reconnected.  I would generally make one or even two trips a year and pick up perhaps fifty pounds per trip, as I was now distributing the un-popped corn to friends and relatives who also marveled at how good it was.  Somehow, the popcorn had not changed in all this time. It still had all of the abovementioned attributes, although the owners of the Cove had changed.  I assumed that the new owners kept the original source.  Starting about 1996, I had arranged with the owner to have the popcorn shipped to me. It was easier and I didn’t always have the luxury of the time required to make the round trip.

I can’t even begin to imagine how many pounds of popcorn we consumed over the years.  But who needed to keep track?  All I cared about was that it was easy to procure some of the finest popcorn anywhere.  The owner of the Cove would ship me a box of 25 pounds and include an invoice to cover the cost of the corn and shipping.  I would then send a check back.  Now tell me. Is that business done the old-fashioned way or what?  Interestingly, we would never meet…

The Number You Have Reached…

But then something awful happened.  My call to Jeff at the Cove (all I knew was his first name) was met by a recording that stated: “the number you have reached is no longer in service.”  I panicked.  With no other option available, other than hopping in my car for a four-hour ride, I searched the Internet, finally coming across the article in the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal that created a rather large lump in my throat: “Owners of the Cove restaurant hang up their aprons for the last time today to do something different.”  (to read the article now requires a subscription.) I was crushed.

Having no idea what to do, I scoured maps of Iowa, trying to figure out possible locations where Jeff had gotten his corn.  After two and a half years, I almost gave up.  Having found only one source that came even remotely close, I decided to make one final attempt at locating the source of the best popcorn I had ever tasted since, believe it or not, 1957.

I contacted the author of the article I had read in the Iowa paper.  His name is Chris Steinbach and he fairly quickly proved to me that newspapers, and people, can often do things better than the Worldwide Web!  He listened to my tale of woe and offered to put a small blurb  in the Muscatine Journal (which he did).  Perhaps someone would read it and be able to help.  I admit that I had my doubts, but less than two weeks later, my phone rang.  It was Chris and he had a lead.

To the Source and Connection Restored

popcorn at the lakeMy apologies for making you wait until the very end for my “discovery”.  The lead took me to a very small town in the far western portion of Iowa, and the home of Snappy Popcorn.  I managed to have a conversation with the owner and, after listening patiently to my tale, he took the time to check his records and actually located an invoice for popcorn sold to the Cove restaurant. I had found my long-lost source of popcorn!  Obviously, I immediately ordered some.

Now, I can truly say that the rest is history, and this story definitely does have a very happy ending. I now enjoy the tasty treat several times a week.  A huge thank you and debt of gratitude goes out to Chris Steinbach and the Muscatine Journal, without whose help I would not be able to write this article. I certainly could not enjoy my favorite snack!  And it goes without saying that Snappy has a great product.  But my joy goes far beyond that, since the “popcorn connection ” between me and my parents has now been restored.

Make it Snappy!

The City of Breda, Iowa Business page on the Internet states that: “Snappy Popcorn is entirely family owned and is entering a third generation of family operations. Snappy Popcorn is one of the leading distributors of popcorn oil throughout the Mid-West.”

More importantly, the website will allow you to order some Snappy popcorn, in sizes from microwave portions all the way up to fifty pounds.  I bet you already know what size my next order will be.  Snappy Popcorn also has an online store on Amazon. We went the Amazon route and opted in for a subscription which always arrives in time so that we never run out!

You don’t need any fancy equipment to pop popcorn. In fact, we even enjoy popcorn when we travel to remote areas of northern Minnesota. Check out our video below about making popcorn the old-fashioned way! Happy munching!

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R. Karl

Angler, Author & Epicure

Fishing since the age of eight.  Seriously writing since the age of 16. Chef and foodie from the age of 22 years… and counting. So much to learn and so little time. I have enjoyed every minute of it all.  Whether on the water (where I like it best), in the kitchen, or at the keyboard, churning out content, I feel like I have found my place.  I am sharing it with you in the hope that some of what I love to do will rub off on you. I hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl