Drowning in a Sea of Popcorn

I'm a non-popcorn guy living in a popcorn world. Sounds like a bad '80s rock song, doesn't it? It's not that I hate the stuff, it's just that, well, I have very little use for it. I don't eat it often, have never had a craving for it, and I have no problem falling asleep in the middle of a movie without it. Trust me, I do that just fine without any outside help. It's like tofu -- on its own it has no taste. This doesn't mean I don't ever want it, it's just not something I get a sudden urge for, like, say, pizza or malted milk balls. Face it, if it wasn't for salt and butter they could hand you a jumbo bag of packing peanuts or rice cakes -- sorry, that's redundant -- and you wouldn't know the difference if you didn't look at it. Maybe that's why it's so popular in darkened theaters.

This puts me squarely in the minority, since Americans chow down 17 billion quarts of popcorn a year. That's a lot of kernels, Orville. In fact, that's 162 million barrels worth, which is enough to fill the gas tanks of 283 million cars, meaning everyone in Los Angeles could drive for a day were their cars able to run on popcorn. And they could get it through the hose and into the tank. Okay, maybe I've had better ideas in my life.

To break this down into something we can relate to on a more personal level, that's 59 quarts of popcorn a year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. And considering that I probably eat a quart or two at most, that leaves plenty for someone else. You know, someone like Crazy Legs Conti, the competitive eater -- yes, guidance counselors, there is such a career -- who the other day put on a diving mask and snorkel and was lowered into a telephone booth-size container filled with popcorn, vowing to eat his way out. The booth held 50 cubic feet of salted, buttered popcorn, which is 1,496 quarts. That's right, he planned on eating 25 Americans' annual allotment of popcorn in eight hours. Hey, we all need to have goals in life. And hopefully a good medical plan to go with them.

Lucky for him he didn't have to pay for it, since he was doing it to promote a documentary about his life as a window washer/competitive eater who, just for yucks, does things like sliding 168 raw oysters down his throat because, well, washing windows isn't very fulfilling. Or filling. It could be worse, he could have been like Oleg Zhornitskiy who ate four 32-ounce bowls of mayonnaise in eight minutes, or Donald Lerman who downed seven quarter-pound sticks of butter in five minutes. Come to think of it guidance counselors, maybe you should forget that this career exists.

So how did popcorn go from being an Indian curiosity to a movie theater profit center? You can blame Samuel Rubin, who died recently at age 85. Fifty years ago he introduced popcorn to movie theaters in New York City and, as you know, anything they do the rest of the country will soon adopt. Okay, except having a grating accent, pushing old ladies out of the way so you can have the cab when it's raining, and keeping a shrine to Woody Allen in the living room. At first Rubin made the popcorn and delivered it to the theaters because they thought it smelled too much, but later they figured out that was part of its allure. It's like a dog sniffing another dog's butt -- we think it smells gross while they probably think popcorn smells gross. I know I do.

I'm not sure what the attraction is to the smell of popcorn, unless it triggers an urge deep within our collective unconscious to throw away a ridiculous amount of money on something that has no nutritional value other than fiber. Hey, wood pulp supplies fiber too but you don't go salivating every time you smell a 2x4 being sawed in half, do you? Okay, that was rhetorical. The worst offender is microwave popcorn, which has a smell that travels farther than an astronaut, sticks better than Superglue, and is more obnoxious than Ashton Kutcher if you can imagine such a thing. Worse, it may actually be harmful.

It's true. The Environmental Protection Agency (motto: "Is it getting warmer in here or is it me?") is studying whether vapors from the butter flavoring causes a rare lung disease. Wouldn't it just suck if something that doesn't taste remotely like real butter turned out to be bad for you? Apparently workers who mix popcorn flavorings get this respiratory illness. It's bad enough their family can smell them as soon as they're two blocks from home, they don't need this too.

Conti didn't have to worry about this, since he didn't stay in the popcorn for but eight hours. And apparently only ate his way down to his shoulders before calling it quits. He said the popcorn wasn't so bad, it was the "butter" -- and I'm required by law and personal ethics to put that in quotes -- that did him in. He ended up eating about eight cubic feet of popcorn, which is 239 quarts, or the annual average consumption of four people. Good, now I don't have to feel bad about not eating my allotment.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com


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