I eat a ton of popcorn, probably well above the 42 quarts the Popcorn Board says the average American consumes annually. I munch on big bowls while binge-watching period dramas. Right now, I’m working my way through a Showtime series set in Italy, centered on the Borgia family during the Renaissance. I can hit the bottom of any bowl without dietary and green guilt because I’ve bought the raw popcorn from a local farmer, and it’s a whole grain so it’s low in fat and high in fiber. Also, I’ve avoided plastic packaging by making it myself and, on a good day, practiced some semblance of self-control while pouring butter over the bowl. I don’t skimp on the salt, either, but it, too, is from Maine.

It’s fairly easy to find gussied-up popcorn that has been popped, dressed and bagged in Maine. I favor Little Lad’s Garlic Buttah, Bar Harbor Popcorn’s Salt-Sweet, Coastal Maine Popcorn’s Salt and Vinegar and Cameron Clan Kettle Corn’s Sweet Chili, especially when I’m traveling alone in the car, and I need something crunchy to keep me alert.

But I’ve found just one local source for the raw kernels in Maine: Fairwinds Farm. It sells yellow, white, blue and red varieties. According to Cathy Karonis, who farms land in both Topsham and Bowdoinham with her husband, Pete, the yellow variety pops up into bigger, fluffier crowns; the others burst into smaller, more angular shapes. The former is better for caramel corn because the syrup can adhere to more surface area. The latter is best for savory applications as it has plenty of nooks and crannies into which herbs and spices can nestle.

Honey, peanut butter and chocolate popcorn balls. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Should you want to try growing popcorn yourself, Maine Cooperative Extension vegetable crop specialist Mark Hutton recommends the Mahogany, Robust 128YH, Strawberry and Top-Pop varieties.

Fairwinds Farm started experimenting with popcorn five years ago as a way to distinguish themselves from the other vegetable farmers at the Brunswick winter market. They planted some dried beans and a few hearty grains at about the same time. The popcorn has taken off, Karonis said. One-pound bags cost $3 dollars at the market, and Fairwinds Farm is now distributing its popcorn more widely through the Crown O’ Maine cooperative. This year, Karonis expects to harvest more than 4,000 pounds and hopes to persuade some of the Maine companies that pop and dress up popcorn to purchase locally grown kernels.

The folks at Fairwinds Farm hand-pick the corn. A recently purchased machine removes the husks so that the kernels can start to dry on the cob; then it removes the kernels from the cobs. The kernels are dried again until they comprise about 15 percent water content, the best for popping. The popcorn they picked last week will be ready to sell in mid-November, Karonis said.

Christine Burns Rudalevige pours the honey, sugar and peanut butter syrup onto the popcorn. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

All Fairwinds popcorn is non-GMO, she said, adding that non-GMO popcorn is actually the norm. While over 90 percent of the sweet (for eating) and field (for feed) corn produced in the United States has been genetically modified in a laboratory, popcorn comes from a different seed. To date, no commercially available popcorn seed has been altered by modern science.

But the science of popcorn itself is still pretty cool.

A popcorn kernel, the only member of the corn family that bursts open when exposed to heat greater that 356 degrees, comprises three parts: the pericarp (tough outer shell), germ (or seed embryo), and endosperm (which contains water and starch molecules). When a popcorn kernel is heated, the water in the endosperm turns into steam, building up pressure inside the pericarp. This pressurized steam transforms the starch into a gelatinous material. When the pressure is too much (that would be over 135 psi), the pericarp ruptures, releasing the steam and gelatinous starch which solidifies upon cooling into a popped kernel that is 40 to 50 times its original size.

As lover of local popcorn, I can only hope to see that kind of growth in availability here in Maine.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Before and after popping for honey, peanut butter and chocolate popcorn balls. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

HONEY, PEANUT BUTTER AND CHOCOLATE POPCORN BALLS

My grandmother used to hand out popcorn balls to Trick or Treaters. I loved them as a kid. Sadly, these days, many kids (make that parents) are afraid to accept homemade Halloween treats. So as the adult who hands out the packaged goods at my house, I content myself with munching on these as I do. Popcorn that pops into mushroom-like fluffs – most yellow corn varieties – are best for this sweet and savory mix because they offer more surface area for the syrup to adhere.
Makes 18-20 (2-inch) balls

10 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup crunchy low-sugar peanut butter
3 ounces responsibly sourced dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Butter or coconut oil for greasing pan and hands

Put the popcorn in a big bowl.
Combine the sugar and honey in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and let it boil for 90 seconds until the sugar has melted. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the peanut butter. Let the syrup cool for 1 minute. Pour the syrup over the popcorn, sprinkle the chopped chocolate, salt and cayenne over the top. Toss with a spoon. Coat your hands with the butter or coconut oil. Form the dressed popcorn into 18-20 (2-inch) balls. Serve immediately or wrap in parchment paper to hand out individually for up to 3 (dry) days.