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Culture Junkie: On popcorn, movies and the pros and cons of ‘flavoring’

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Who doesn’t love popcorn?

Especially buttered popcorn.

Some of us even like butter “flavored” popcorn.

I am one of them, I confess, even though I once worked at a factory in Los Angeles where artificial butter “flavoring” was manufactured about once a month on the Oil and Mayonnaise line that was my regular assignment for over a year. Part of my job on the production line was to bottle the “flavoring” and load it into boxes for movie theaters all over the country.

I also helped make the stuff, assisting with the assembly and mixing of ingredients.

Which means that, yeah, I actually know what’s in it.

More on that shortly.

Many frequent filmgoers cannot imagine watching a movie without popcorn. To us, popcorn and films are linked so deeply that, like Pavlov’s dog, we start craving popcorn the moment we begin considering going to see a movie. It’s called “conditioning,” and they who conditioned us did their job well. We know we’ve been trained this way, but for the most part, we don’t care, because we get to eat popcorn, and that’s that.

Personally, I think the greatest innovation at theaters in the last few years is not reserved seating, and it’s not recliner seats, and it’s not beer and wine or nachos served by ninjas during the show.

It’s the refillable bag of popcorn.

Our local Boulevard Cinemas 14, when you purchase a large popcorn, will refill it once that day. I rarely leave a film during the screening, but I will head back to the candy counter after the show to get the bag topped off or refilled before heading home.

My wife will often greet me, when I’ve gone to a film she elected to stay home from, “Did you bring me popcorn?”

I almost always do.

In the last month, Rohnert Park’s Reading Cinema has actually implemented what they call the “Endless Popcorn” bucket, a carboard bucket thay will refill as many times as you like, on any single day, for a flat $6 dollars.

It’s a popcorn addict’s dream.

It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when movie exhibitors disliked the idea of popcorn. They were concerned about the mess, the extra work and, yes, the fact that handling and eating popcorn might distract people from becoming thoroughly engaged by the film being screened.

Anthropologists suggest that humans have been cultivating and eating different varieties of popcorn for millennia. Initially, it was prepared by holding metal baskets filled with corn kernels over an open fire. But it wasn’t until 1885, and Chicago inventor Charles Cretors’ patenting of the steam-powered Popcorn Maker, and his deployment of numerous street carts equipped with the devices, that popcorn became a snack of mass consumption alongside roasted nuts and hot dogs. After movie theaters evolved from crude nickelodeons to ornate movie palaces, owners fought the intrusion of snacks until the Great Depression, when the low-cost of selling popcorn proved considerably more profitable than selling tickets to silent movies. As improvements in popcorn-making led to better poppers, the street machines moved into theater lobbies, and a tradition was born that continues until today.

At some point, people started pouring melted butter over the stuff, then sprinkling it all with salt, and calling it delicious.

Which it is.

It also smells good.

I once discovered, while managing a performing arts center for several years — including overseeing the snack bar at concerts, plays and other shows — that we sold roughly twice as many cookies, brownies, water, sodas and even beer and wine if the smell of popping corn greeted the folks entering the lobby. Once discovered, I made sure to have popcorn popping 30 minutes before every show. The smell of it just makes us hungry. It does. Scientists who study such things have determined that it’s the chemical dubbed 6-Acetyl-2,3,4,5-tetrahydropyridine, known in the biz as an “odorant,” that makes popcorn smell so appetizing, and once the door of our appetite is opened by popcorn, it stays open for any number of other delicious and generally not-too-healthy treats.

Which brings us back to “flavoring.”

At S.E. Rykoff & Company, the food manufacturing plant I worked at from the age of 19 to 21, Flavoring Day was always a bit interesting. You might remember Rykoff from the distinctive green trucks that used to carry its products to restaurants all over the country. The trucks were all emblazoned with the slogan, “Enjoy Life. Eat Out More Often.”

Flavoring Day involved moving our team from one side of the manufacturing floor to another, where an enormous open tank — I think it held about 1,000 gallons or so of liquid — would be filled with vegetable oil. The oil came in large metal barrels, which would be lifted up on a specially designed forklift and emptied into the tank. The tank was able to be heated, not to boiling but warm enough that you could smell the oil. At this point, the mixture looked like oil, not butter, because it was essentially clear. So, we’d add food coloring to make it a nice rich yellow. The more flavorless the oil, the better.

Because what counted was the butter flavor.

It came in a plastic bottle something like a half-gallon of bleach.

It was kept in a secure location.

Like an explosive.

Which, in a certain sense, it was.

The bottle would be carried carefully to the tank. It would be opened with the ceremonious recognition that once the cap was off, the smell of butter — artificial though it might technically be — would fill the factory floor instantly. We called it “nuclear butter.” The foreman would pour out the correct amount of flavoring and quickly replace the cap, then add the “nuclear butter” to the warm oil in the tank. That huge, enormous tank of flavorless oil only need a couple of cups of the stuff to make the entire batch smell and taste just like melted butter. More or less.

It would take us a couple of hours to decant all of it into various sizes of bottles, ready to ship, all so those hungry people sitting in the dark in movie theaters can much their popcorn while making believe they are eating it with actual butter.

As one co-worker on the Oil and Mayonnaise Line once said, “Vegetable oil is better for you than real butter anyway.”

There are arguments on both sides, of course, but the thing is, I like both. When I have the chance to go to a movie in a theater that serves “actual butter” — the Summerfield in Santa Rosa, the Rialto in Sebastopol and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael are the closest — I see it as a special treat to get the real thing.

That said, though I use less of it than I did when younger, I’m just as happy to say yes to a small amount of the “flavoring,” just for old time’s sake.

I know it’s only flavored vegetables, but I can make-believe, right?

After all, making believe is what going to the movies is all about.

(‘Culture Junkie’ runs every other week or so in the Argus-Courier. Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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