James Lileks
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It is not unusual for someone to send free popcorn to a newspaper office. If they've got some new flavor — gin and salt! Chlorophyll and clove! — they'd like a review they could use in an ad. " 'What the hull is this?' startribune.com" or something like that.

The bags always are nicely designed, and because the word "artisanal" is used, the price is $5.99.

The other day we got some packets of unpopped kernels in tiny bags from popcorn.org. After some research, we concluded that it's a product of the Popcorn Board, whose website says, "It was formed in April 1998 as an Act of Congress at the request of the popcorn processing industry." Which apparently means that it is against the law to not eat popcorn.

The purpose of the packets was to raise awareness of popcorn. I'm not sure that's necessary. I think we're all up to speed on the subject, right?

Let's go through the basics:

1. There's movie popcorn, which should be called trailer popcorn because everyone finishes the bag during the trailers. By the time the actual movie starts, no one has any left, even the people who bought the feed-bag size.

This is regarded by many as the best popcorn, because on the way into the theater you pass a machine that dispenses Gold'n Topping, and you can, if you wish, make soup. In the olden days, the person behind the counter controlled the amount of topping you got, but now I've seen customers strap on a carpal-tunnel brace to get ready to work that pump.

You might tell yourself it's butter, but have you ever seen a recipe that called for a stick of butter and said, "Gold'n Topping may be substituted"? No.

2. Air-popped corn, which is useful only if you want to tell your kids a heartwarming story about the invention of Styrofoam.

3. Manual labor popcorn, which is tiresome. You heat the oil in a pan, and then you stand at the stove and shake it back and forth like it's the 18th century or something. Jiffy Pop was an alternative if you were in the mood to waste finite metals and get something burnt that had a top note of "fresh dental filling."

4. Microwave popcorn, which is the most common variety. People are fierce about their brand choices. Go ahead and snark at someone who chooses "Act II" — isn't that the most boring part of the play? But there was an Act I, and it was developed right here in Minnesota. It was supposed to taste like movie theater popcorn, but you had to keep it in the fridge. Act II you could keep in the cupboard, and that made it the first popular microwave popcorn.

There are dozens of brands, and most have maddening nutritional panels that make you do math. They have separate caloric counts for popped and unpopped, as if there is anyone eating raw popcorn who is not a dog — and a disappointed dog at that. The serving size is always "One Cup," which is about nine kernels, and the bag has "12 servings" or something like that. You just want the box to say, "Yeah, you're going to eat the whole bag. 420 calories."

If you weren't around at the time of its invention, it's hard to describe the impact of microwave popcorn. It was to the microwave oven what porn was to the videocassette machine. To this day, the ritual is the same: You put it in, you ignore it until it starts popping like a machine gun, then you become alert, like a Neanderthal hunter with spear raised, watching his prey. You are attuned to the pace of the popping, and should the rapid popping diminish, you are faced with a momentous decision: Stop it now and have 40 old maids at the bottom, or give it 10 more seconds and risk the peril of scorching.

(Yes, we called the unpopped kernels old maids, because gender expectations extended to the nomenclature of failed snack components, thanks to an Act of Congress in April of 1937.)

In any event, here's what got me started on all this: Popcorn.org's obligatory History Page buries the most interesting fact about popcorn I've ever learned. It was once a breakfast item. Why not? Corn in flake form is accepted; why not exploded form? But try that today and you're weird, because no one in our culture is supposed to have popcorn before noon.

The transformation of popcorn to a breakfast food, I believe, is the ultimate goal of the Popcorn Board.

Oh, one of those fancy popcorns that came into the office a while ago? Bacon-flavored.

I tell you, they're trying to bring it back for breakfast, one subtle marketing effort at a time.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks