August 14, 2013

For lover of Maine popcorn, it's crunch time

Fueled by an addiction to Little Lad's herbal popcorn, a home cook experiments in the kitchen to create his own version of the snack.

By JOE YONAN The Washington Post

For a household accustomed to growing and making most everything edible, our addiction to one particular store-bought food -- a snack food, at that -- was intense. Pretty much any time my sister, brother-in-law or I went to a grocery store near their homestead in southern Maine while I was living there last year, we were expected to pick up some Little Lad's herbal popcorn.

click image to enlarge

Herbed popcorn

The Washington Post photo by Deb Lindsey

click image to enlarge

For the popcorn-addicted, garlic ghee and dark chocolate-drizzled versions.

The Washington Post photo by Deb Lindsey

We tried a couple of the other flavors but always came back to the herbal. And we started small. But too often those little bags would barely make it to the car, let alone home, before the contents were consumed in a fit of hand-to-mouth shoveling. And we gradually upgraded and started buying bags that hold about a gallon of the stuff. They're so tall that they stick out of whatever you put them in, broadcasting to anyone who sees you that, yes, you have a problem. If they've tasted it, they probably do, too.

It's made by a group of vegan Seventh-Day Adventists based in Corinth, Maine, and sold around New England, and all it took was a little Googling to realize we were not the only ones with an addiction to it.

"What makes this popcorn so amazing?" asks a blogger in Massachusetts.

"One taste and you'll be hooked 4-eva," writes another one in Portland, where Little Lad's operates a cafe.

What's in this stuff? The company has guarded the recipe, but we perused the label often, checking and rechecking as if the simple list might possibly seem less cryptic the more times we read it: "Non-GMO popcorn, herbs and spices, soybean oil and sea salt."

Then we slowed down and concentrated as we tasted, thinking instead of shoveling. Okay, dill is definitely among the herbs. And the nutty, kinda cheesy flavor had to be that staple of vegans everywhere: nutritional yeast. A closer look at the contents of the transparent bag and the telltale golden flakes inside confirmed it. But is that really all that goes into it?

I started experimenting in the kitchen. I tried a recipe on a now-defunct blog called Cornucopasetic that got me in the ballpark, using just those two ingredients plus vegetable oil and salt. But it didn't seem quite there. So I played around with the flavor mixture, adding oregano and thyme, which rounded out the herbiness; garlic, which overpowered the other flavors so much I made the rare decision to ditch it; and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, which amped up the addictiveness even further. (Interestingly, I tried using Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which nutritional yeast so often subs for, and didn't like it as much as with the "nooch.")

The real trick, it turns out, is in getting the coating to stick to the popcorn. The method I settled on involves infusing oil with the pepper and herbs, tossing it with popcorn in a paper bag and drizzling on a little more oil before coating (or trying to coat) with the nutritional yeast. Still, some of the coating sinks to the bottom of the bag. But you know what? That happens with the Little Lad's popcorn, too, so maybe it's meant to be.

Once we started making our own version (in gallon-size batches, of course), our purchases of the Little Lad's brand slowed down a bit. But then we had another problem: We couldn't seem to buy enough popcorn kernels to keep up.

Eventually, we had no choice. We planted 100 feet of popcorn, between the soybeans and the wheat.

But that might not be the end of it. One day, I fear, my sister will tell me they're making their own nutritional yeast, a process I believe to be entirely industrial. At that point, an addiction to popcorn may be the least of their worries.

(Continued on page 2)

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