Kernels of Wisdom

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Messy I can understand, and noisy is a stretch, but calling popcorn junk food is just outdated: As any smart nutritionist will tell you these days, the fact that the industrialized version of a given food is unhealthy doesn’t impugn the food as a whole. Real popcorn is low in calories (and surprisingly low in carbohydrates, for what it is), high in fiber, and nearly fat-free; even the oil-popped stuff is relatively low in fat, provided you don’t eat seven cups of it at a time. Yes, there’s a lot of bad popcorn out there, full of nasty additives that cause popcorn lung, but that’s from artificial butter flavoring, not from the real stuff. (Side note: I have no idea how any of it could encourage junk entertainment.) And while most movie-theater popcorn is made from subsidized corn that costs less than the bag it comes in, many farmers markets and small producers sell good-quality popcorn—the tasteful art-house proprietor is not without alternatives. Plus, subsidized or not, popping corn (in my opinion) is a much better crop for farmers to be growing than the type of corn used for corn syrup, cattle feed, or ethanol.

Speaking of subsidies, popcorn basically subsidizes movie tickets, allowing more people to go to theatres (including the art houses) more often: Concessions account for about 40 percent of theatres’ profits, because while ticket revenues have to be shared with film distributors, concession revenues belong to the theatre alone. Instead of doing away with popcorn, cinemas should just start serving the real stuff, bumping those $7 bags up to $10 if they must—and dealing with any messiness by hiring a few extra people to clean up between shows. Lord knows most theatres could use that anyway.

The more I found myself defending popcorn against the attacks of highfalutin British cinephiles, the more I started to like it. What really pushed me over the edge was learning that during the Depression, “popcorn, at ten cents a bag, was one of the few luxuries poorer families could afford.” The humble, healthy, joy-inspiring snack came to the rescue again during World War II, when sugar rationing made candy so scarce that Americans tripled their popcorn consumption. I might just triple mine, too—this country could use more conscientious corn eaters.

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