Mouths to Feed: Pop Art

By Celia Barbour

I got a lot of good advice when my kids were little. I was lucky: At the time, I was the editor of a children’s magazine, so it was my job to seek out and soak up every bit of useful wisdom I could from pediatricians, child psychologists and the like.

Sometimes these days, I find myself wanting to pass it along — we’ve outgrown so much of it. But good parenting advice is harder to give away than old onesies. No one wants it.

Here, however, is a tip we have not gotten too big for yet: Treat children’s snacks like mini-meals. That’s because kids consume a substantial portion of their daily calories at snack time, so it’s important to approach this repast much the way you would breakfast or lunch, rather than letting it be a nutritional free-for-all.

I happen to like this piece of advice (which may or may not have come from the American Academy of Pediatrics; I can’t remember) even if I manage to abide by it only occasionally. It gives me a way to think a bit more clearly about an event that would otherwise be governed by chaos. So, for example, if I happen to be in the kitchen at the moment my kids get ravenous, I’ll offer them soup or a quesadilla or a sandwich, or I’ll boil up a bag of frozen peas (the entirety of which Dosi will happily eat all by herself, her nose buried in a book, as long as they’re tossed with a little butter).

popcornThese interventions never actually stop the kids from ripping into bags of chips, but they can delay by up to 20 minutes the annihilation of said bags, and I’m willing to call that a victory.

Plus, if all else fails, I can apply the above advice to myself whenever the realization that my kids have strayed beyond the reach of my influence gets me down and I head to the kitchen, crushing chip crumbs underfoot, to drown my sorrows in peanut butter pretzels and sugary tea.

The truth is, I have no right to feel blue. I know as well as anyone that the hunger that strikes around 4 p.m. gnaws as much at the soul as the stomach and can only be sated by pointless — even shameful — foods. Which is why I so often find myself in the snack aisle of a certain grocery store, staring at the puffs, twigs and chips in their glinting, pillowy bags. I wish I could accept that buying them is just one of the compromises demanded by modern motherhood and feel grateful that the food industry caters to the complexity of our needs with so many exciting flavors. (The English company Tyrrell’s recently introduced a chip called “Sunday Best Roast Chicken.” A chip.)

popcorn 2But I always feel somewhat peevish as I pile several in my grocery cart. And I draw the line at those bags of pre-popped popcorn that seem to be proliferating these days. I just can’t bring myself to pay for something I can make myself for one-twentieth the cost. Plus, with so many remarkable spice mixes available these days, it’s really easy to pop up a batch of something quite exotic. Just mix a teaspoon of spice — curry powder, fajita seasoning, berbere spices, za’atar — with salt and a tiny pinch of sugar and toss it with your buttered (or olive-oiled) popcorn.

Popcorn is also useful when I want my kids to remember to be grateful for the fact that they have a mother, because it can quickly be turned into caramel corn. My son George’s friend Arno once told his mom that I was a great cook. Really, really great, he insisted. She asked why, and he said because I made caramel corn. I hope this dish does not turn out to be my personal magnum opus — I aspire to greater things — but it might. And anyway, compliments are like advice: You can keep the ones you like and discard the rest.

Caramel popcorn

3/4 cup popcorn kernels

2 tablespoons mild oil, such as canola

sea salt to taste

1½ cups salted peanuts, or a mixture of nuts, seeds and dried berries (blueberry-almond-flax seed is quite nice), optional

1½ sticks butter

2 cups sugar

¼ cup maple syrup

¼ cup water

1½ sticks butter

½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Put the kernels and oil in a saucepan large enough that they will cover the bottom in more or less a single layer, and place over medium-high with the pot lid slightly ajar (to let steam escape). When the kernels begin to pop, secure the lid and shake the pan vigorously and constantly until the popping slows. Transfer popcorn to a large bowl and sprinkle with sea salt.
  2. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, syrup and water. Heat, stirring, until sugar is melted, then add the butter and stir until melted. Continue heating without stirring, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar turns a deep amber-gold, about 15 minutes (or 260 degrees on a candy thermometer). Remove from the heat, wait a minute, then mix in the baking soda (the mixture with froth slightly). Immediately pour the caramel over the popcorn mixture, tossing thoroughly to combine.
  3. Allow to cool at least 5 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to a week.

Photos by C. Barbour


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