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Popcorn balls and other ghosts of Christmas Past

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They are impossible to eat, but look nice in a big bowl on the kitchen table.

Popcorn balls were a part of every Christmas celebration held by my mom’s side of the family. My grandma and my great-grandmother made them using the same ancient techniques the Mayans used to make the bricks to build the pyramids of the Yucatan peninsula. The pyramids still stand. The hard part for that Mesoamerican civilization was lifting them off what must have been massive sheets of wax paper.

Somewhere near Montrose, Colorado, there is a landfill with several layers of pink and green popcorn balls defying the forces of erosion and decay. Maybe someday Wheel of Fortune will give away fabulous trips to the Popcorn Balls Fields of Montrose County.

Even though I never managed to chew through an entire popcorn ball, I tried every year. Usually, I’d pluck a pink one from the bowl. I’d take a bite and immediately remember how awful they are. For the rest of the holiday, I’d stick to their homemade sugar cookies, which were always perfectly baked and intricately decorated.

I wonder why my grandmothers persisted, year after year, in foisting The Corn God’s technicolor droppings on their loved ones. I recall them, mother and daughter, sitting side by side in the kitchen. Savory foods simmered on the stovetop burners and roasted in the oven. They’d mix and talk, talk and mix.

They’d stir virgin popcorn with hot sugary syrup, dyed green or pink. They’d form balls like boys packing tight snowballs. They’d line up the balls on sheets of wax paper, admonishing everyone to let them cool.

No argument from me.

I suspect the reason popcorn balls kept getting invited back, year after year, was because neither of my grandmothers could picture a holiday without that moment of sitting and mixing, talking and forming, of watching their handiwork line up in pink and green. It had always been done. It was tradition.

Permanence is more than a pyramid or corn-based rocks hidden under a small western city’s edge.

Permanence is sewn deep through the bonds of family. The futility of making an inedible treat was a trifle compared to what they were really doing: Honoring an already permanent bond by revisiting tradition. What they didn’t know is how deeply I am grateful as a woman in charge of my own young family’s traditions.

Their effort, their example, their petrified Jiffy Pop.

May they never crumble.

(If you’d like to make popcorn balls, thus making a personal contribution to the layers of the earth’s crust, I recommend this recipe because it appears to be the closest to my grandmothers’)

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson November 30, 2010

    Was this post about extolling the virtues of popcorn balls or an obituary? Either way, talk about FUNNY. 🙂

    Either way, talk about hilarious! We do caramel popcorn but aren’t ambitious enough to form them into balls. One year, our big bowl of caramel popcorn was single-handedly responsible for transferring the Norwalk Virus from one family member to another.

    Talk about bonding.

  • comment avatar JoAnn November 30, 2010

    Both of my grandmothers made these, too! I thought it was just a Midwestern thing. I must say, though, they put some kind of secret ingredient (more pure sugar?) in them, so they were actually really tasty if you could gnaw off a bite. 😉

    For the record, I preferred the red ones. 🙂

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz November 30, 2010

    Dentists love popcorn balls, I hear.

    And your grandmothers.

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  • comment avatar Amy November 30, 2010

    I feel like they should have been making them for Halloween. I remember ever year getting one popcorn ball in my bag, with the glad wrap not quite holding because the sugary coating was so greasy it defied containment.