Picture this: It’s Christmas morning. Your loved one hands you a beautifully gift-wrapped box. “Open it!” they squeal, clapping their hands with delight. “It’s one of Oprah’s Favorite Things.”
You open the gift carefully, touched by their thoughtfulness in offering you a product personally selected by Oprah, who has famously impeccable taste. What could it be? Perhaps an Italian cruet set made of handblown glass? A professional-grade boar-bristle brush? You unwrap it slowly, tingling with anticipation, before finally revealing a giant tin drum of …. artisanal popcorn.
This is not mere dystopian speculative fiction, but a foreshadowing of the real, unhappy fate that may befall some gift recipients this year. For on Oprah’s newly revealed list of favorite things, nestled among faux-fur vests, foot massagers, and other objects that someone, somewhere might actually desire, is Popinsanity Artisanal Popcorn, which (somehow) costs $30 to $180 per gift bag or drum, features flavors like cookies and cream, and is absolutely impossible to fathom anyone in their right mind ever truly wanting.
This complaint is not specific to Popsanity’s artisanal popcorn, but applies to all artisanal popcorn, all around the world, because it is, objectively and quite simply, not a good gift. Popcorn is meant to be eaten freshly popped—either consumed in movie theaters, awash in chemical-butter goodness, or else cooked in the comfort of your own home. In a tin, it becomes stale and squeaky, which is why tin popcorn gets doused in toppings—an attempt to distract you from the fundamental sad fact that you are eating little bits of cardboard.
As an office snack, a little bag of pre-packaged popcorn is inoffensive, if unappetizing. What do you expect? You’re in a cubicle; eat your cardboard. But as a gift, there is nothing sadder. A tin of artisanal popcorn says, on behalf of the giver, “I put no thought into this,” and on behalf of the popcorn itself, “There is no reason why I should exist in the world,” and on behalf of late-capitalist culture, “We have run out of good ideas for things that people can buy.”
Oprah says that she evaluates all prospective items on her Favorite Things list by the following criteria: “Do I really like it enough to want to receive it myself?” Apparently Oprah does think she would, indeed, rejoice upon receiving a tin of artisanal popcorn; an eagle-eyed colleague notes that she included a tin of Garrett’s popcorn in her 2010 list, too.
Perhaps the problem here is that Oprah thinks the only way she can enjoy flavored popcorn is to buy a tin of the stuff. Not so! I learned this lesson myself one day around eight years ago, when a Trader Joe’s worker noticed that I was buying popcorn and butter and gave me the world’s hottest tip.
“Do you have brown sugar at home?” he asked.
I said I did.
“You should make caramel popcorn,” he said.
“What?” I said, slapping him across the face in my shock and excitement. Then I went home and did as he’d said. Here’s how you can do it too:
Trader Joe Guy’s Caramel Popcorn Recipe
Heat up 1 tbsp vegetable oil, along with a few popcorn kernels, in a saucepan. When the kernels pop, add 1/2 cup unpopped kernels and cover the pan with a lid. Listen for the popping! What a nice sound.
When the popping slows, take a peek to see if most of your popcorn is now white and fluffy. If so, move quickly to avoid burning the rest and pour it into a glass Pyrex bowl.
Next, melt about 1/4 cup butter in a pan. When the butter is melted, add 1/4 cup brown sugar and bring to a boil while stirring. When the texture is good and caramel-y, remove from heat and add 1/2 tsp vanilla extract. Then pour it all over your popcorn, tossing to combine, and add as much sea salt as you like. Serves however many people you’re willing to share your popcorn with.
What if you do not like caramel, but you do love bright colors? My colleague Sarah Kessler says her fifth-grade teacher used to add a packet of Jello to popcorn, like so. What if you do not like cooking or popping things? That is just fine. Eat popcorn some other way! Microwave some popcorn. Scoop some popcorn out of the little machine at your neighborhood bar. Go to the movies. Hell, order yourself a tin of artisanal popcorn if you must. But for the sake of all that is holy, do not give artisanal popcorn to a friend or family member—unless your friend is Oprah, I guess, and even then, maybe just invite her over for your own delicious hand-crafted Trader Joe Guy popcorn. The world is already sad enough.