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Kernels of Wisdom From a Corny Guy


I took it hard when I heard that Orville Redenbacher had died last month at the age of 88. We had the same favorite food, popcorn.

When you spoke with Mr. Redenbacher you quickly found out that there was more to this self-described "funny-looking farmer with a funny sounding name" than image. Despite his big bow-tie and gawky appearance, he was no bumpkin. He was a serious man who cared about his crop. How it was grown. How it was cooked. How it tasted.

A few years ago, for instance, when I spoke to him in a telephone interview from his Coronado, Calif., condo, Mr. Redenbacher recalled that he had been worried about the "popability" problem in some early lines of his microwave popcorn. "Popability" is industry lingo for the percentage of kernels that pop. Even though Mr. Redenbacher had sold his popcorn enterprise to Hunt-Wesson, now a ConAgra Inc. subsidiary, he was still appearing in advertisements for the popcorn. So he talked to the people in the Hunt-Wesson lab and eventually, he said, the "popability" problem was solved.

His concern about unpopped kernels was a sign to me that he not only sold the stuff, he was also a serious popcorn eater.

Serious popcorn eaters take note of how many unpopped kernels, so-called "old maids" or "shy-guys," are sitting in the bottom of the bag or bowl. I have been known to read the unpopped kernels, the way some people read tea leaves. I do this to get an indication of how my life, or maybe the rest of my afternoon, will go. A heap of unpopped kernels is a warning that bad vibes are in the air. A handful of kernels means things are normal. And when virtually every kernel had been transformed into a big puffy piece of popcorn, it means this is a day you can do no wrong.

Mr. Redenbacher also told me that a key to good popability is the moisture content of the kernels. It is the moisture inside the kernel that explodes, or pops, when heated, he said.

He talked a lot about hybrids and crop rotation and bugs. He sounded, at times, like a county agricultural agent, which is a job he once held back in his home state of Indiana.

He had grown up on his father's farm near Brazil, Ind. When it came time to go to college, he went to nearby Purdue University, a center of corn research. There, some hybrid experiments with popcorn caught his attention.

After graduation he worked as a county agent in Vigo County near Terre Haute, at times broadcasting reports from cornfields. In 1965, he teamed up with Charlie Bowman, a longtime friend and fellow agricultural scientist, and the two developed a new type of popcorn. This new popcorn was fatter and fluffier than the old varieties, which traced their roots to the time of the Pilgrims.

The new Redenbacher-Bowman kernels, or "snowflakes," expanded some 40 times their original size when popped -- double the size of other kernels.

The new popcorn was also more expensive than conventional popcorn and that sometimes made sales difficult. So Mr. Redenbacher, decked out in his signature red bow tie, crisscrossed the upper Midwest to sell the popcorn, then called Red Bow Persistence. Good luck came when, following the advice of a marketing firm, he and Mr. Bowman changed the name to Orville Redenbacher's and put Mr. Redenbacher's picture on the label. In 1970 Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn appeared in Marshall Field, the Chicago department store. Some five years later it was the nation's leading popcorn, a distinction the brand still holds.

Mr. Redenbacher and I talked about cooking methods. He had popped corn over open fires, in pans with oil, in air poppers and in the microwave oven. He surprised me by speaking well of air poppers, a method I suspiciously regarded as newfangled. While he wouldn't say which popping method was his favorite, I got the feeling he was a pop-it-in-the-pan kind of guy.

As for toppings, Mr. Redenbacher said he sometimes put butter or caramel or cheese on his popcorn.

When I asked him about jalapeno-flavored popcorn, he laughed. That, he said, was popcorn for young people.

October is a big month for popcorn. It is the time of year when families make popcorn balls for Halloween parties and when popcorn sales peak. The Popcorn Institute, an industry trade group, has declared October "National Popcorn Popping Month."

I plan to pop a lot of corn this month, and when I do I'll think of Orville. He was the genuine article. A guy who grew popcorn on the farm, studied it in school, and sold in the stores. Thanks to him, many of us are eating a little higher on the cob.

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