Lights dim and the noise level in the crowd rapidly decreases as people shush their children and latecomers rush to fi nd seats. Squinting to see down the long, red aisles of fi lled chairs, their eyes have not yet adjusted to the dark. At last, everyone is in place, bubbly beverages safely stowed into built-in cup holders as creaky chairs lean back and multitudes of expectant, smiling faces are bathed in a bright light. It's inevitable that during this magical moment, right as the opening credits appear, that your friend, spouse or child leans over and whispers, "Pass the popcorn!" The image of an enraptured audience always seems to be accompanied by that ubiquitous bag of buttery popcorn, something you can scoop up into large handfuls and deposit into your mouth, keeping your eyes completely glued to the screen. Although we all love popcorn at the movie theater, loaded with "butter-fl avored" topping and plenty of salt, there are certainly other, more interesting ways to enjoy one of America's favorite pastimes (we consume approximately 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually) from popcorn connoisseurs right here in New Orleans.
Jack Petronella, owner of Manhattan Jack on Prytania Street, is a self-proclaimed popcorn fanatic. A few years back, Petronella was surfi ng the net, seeking to fi nd out what makes some popcorn strains better than others and where they were grown. According to his research, Petronella discovered that the U.S. is the world's popcorn supplier and most of it's grown in Indiana and Nebraska. He also found out about the difference between yellow and white kernels, and the gradations within each that affect both fl avor and texture.
For example, it's rare to fi nd platinum, yellow kernel popcorn other than directly from the farms' websites, though it is by far the best. Premium yellow kernel popcorn is what's usually sold in movie theaters and white kernel corn (regardless of size) is considered the most tender. There are also two different forms, "mushroom" and "butterfl y." Mushroom shaped popcorn is sturdier and holds up to caramel and toffee coatings (think Cracker Jacks).
After much experimentation (and I'm assuming a lot of popcorn-fi lled movie nights), Petronella has developed his own special blend of kernels by combining tiny white, large white, mushroom, platinum yellow and premium yellow. They also spritz pure butter on their popcorn offering a delicate, but not overwhelming coating. Petronella may have created the perfect bag of popcorn, but you'll have to buy some at Manhattan Jack and fi nd out for yourself.
On the sweeter side of popcorn, there's Ye Olde Kettle Cooker owned by Robert Stengl which appears at the Crescent City Farmers Market every Tuesday, as well as other community events. Stengl got interested in the German kettle corn business after watching a Food Network segment on concession foods at American theme parks. As a stay-at-home dad who telecommuted to work, Stengl thought it would be worthwhile endeavor that he could devote himself to part-time.
Kettle corn is made by adding sugar (sometimes honey) to popcorn while it's popping. Stengl says the "sugar turns to slurry and vaporizes as a kernel bursts inside it" resulting in a popped kernel sealed inside a thin layer of sugar. Then, the kettle corn is salted, giving it that irresistible sweet/salty contrast, one of the most popular features of all great snack foods. "It (kettle corn) will stay fresh for ten days if it stays in a bag, or will last ten minutes if the bag is open." Stengl says with a smile. After all, who can resist an open bag of kettle corn?
Although Stengl began his kettle corn adventures at the Crescent City Farmers Market, he has become so popular that you'll fi nd him popping at the Youth Leadership Council's Wednesday at the Square, movie screening at New Orleans Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden, food truck round-ups and even youth soccer league games at Lafreniere Park. Stengl also likes to get creative with his kettle corn, utilizing the fresh produce from the farmers market to create fl avors like habenero, kale or mustard for St. Patrick's Day, and even strawberry, peach and blueberry (although the fruit fl avors are quite labor intensive and saved for rare occasions). Stengl says he's considering experimenting with coffee-fl avored kettle corn...what will he think of next?