The Kernel of a Great Kitchen

How a popcorn maker can change your life -- and your lifestyle.
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When people think about making major improvements in their kitchen, they usually think big: a Sub-Zero refrigerator, perhaps. A granite countertop. A

Starbucks

-caliber espresso maker.

Well, it's time to let you in on a little secret. If you really want to make a momentous improvement in gastronomic pleasure, if you're looking for that kitchen appliance that actually delivers on the unspoken promise of all kitchen equipment -- that it will make you happier -- you don't need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars.

All you need to do is spend $25 on a popcorn popper.

Some background here. Every year, Americans spend ever-increasing amounts of money for microwave popcorn, and ever-shrinking amounts on loose unpopped kernels. The Snack Food Association calculates, for example, that in 2003, people spent $1.37 billion on microwave popcorn at retail; a year before, people spent only $76 million on plain old kernels they can pop on the stove or in a popcorn machine.

There's nothing terribly wrong with that trend, for the most part. Microwave popcorn has taken off for two reasons. First, it's convenient. All you have to do is throw a bag into the microwave, zap it for three minutes, and you're done.

And second, the popcorn is good enough. It may be a little salty, it may be burnt from overcooking, the butter flavoring may not taste buttery, but it's all right.

That is, until you actually taste some stove-top-popped popcorn. That's when you'll taste the difference. It's like the difference between a locally grown tomato from the farmer's market and the bruise-resistant Frankenstein that's been shipped to your grocery store from across the country. It's the difference between sitting 10th-row center at a Broadway musical and watching a snippet of the show broadcast during the Tony Awards. Once you've tried the real thing, there's no comparison.

So why has convenience won out over quality in the world of popcorn? Why have people forgotten how good stove-popped popcorn can be?

The answer may be that people, almost literally, have been burned. When I was a kid, I remember popping up a batch of popcorn in the family's Farberware cooking pots -- and waiting just a little too long to empty out the corn. The end result was an ugly black mess fused to the bottom of the pot. That scared me away from popcorn-popping for a few years at least.

Just as any woodworker would tell you, what you need is the right tool for the right job. And the right tool for this job is a Whirley Pop popcorn popper from

www.popcornpopper.com.

Along with the lid, the key design element that makes the Whirley Pop popper work is the hand crank built into the popper's handle. Turn the crank, and a stiff metal wire rotates around the bottom of the pot -- it agitates the kernels before they pop, and keeps them from sticking to the bottom after they do.

So forget about the additives, preservatives, flavorings and microwaves that may be in the popcorn you're eating now. All you need is the Whirley Pop, a tablespoon of oil and a half cup of unpopped popcorn. It may take six minutes instead of three to cook, but those extra minutes will be worth it.

And it's better for you, too. I won't go through the calorie counts and the milligrams of sodium in your microwave popcorn -- just take my word for it.

Plus, once you see how easy it is to make, you can start getting creative with popcorn recipes. (Yes, popcorn recipes. There are such things.) Add a little more oil to the mix, plus some sugar -- the Whirley Pop comes with a recipe booklet -- and you have sugar-coated popcorn, or kettle corn. From past experience, I can assure you that no one is ever unhappy about a gift of kettle corn.

Don't believe me? Go ahead and buy a Whirley Pop anyway. Given how much cheaper loose popcorn is than the microwave stuff -- it costs about 90 cents a pound at your local grocer, compared to about 80 cents for a batch of microwaved -- you'll break even on your popper over a few football-season weekends.

If your tastes are a little fancier, you can buy the new

Disney

Popcorn Popper, introduced only last month. Like the Hamilton Beach popcorn popper that Joe Namath used to pitch long ago, the plug-in popper has a self-contained heating unit along with its agitator; just flip it over when you're done and the clear lid on the popper turns into the serving bowl. (Due in stores this fall, it's priced at $39.99.)

Of course, if you really want to get serious about popcorn, you can buy Hammacher Schlemmer's Popcorn Jukebox, a freestanding photogenic cabinet that the company says can pop more than 100 six-ounce servings of "theater-quality" popcorn per hour (available at

Hammacher's Web site). It'll set you back a cool $1,595.95 -- not including the $500 pedestal.

Now, spending upwards of $2,000 on a popper might strike you as a little nutty. But rest assured, once you've given the Whirley Pop a whirl, investing in popcorn will seem like the sanest thing you've done all year.