By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
The best caramel corn comes from butterflies combined with mushrooms. Some people use only mushrooms—the kernels that pop into smooth, round balls—but Sharon Yoder of Yoder Popcornsays butterflies—the kernels that sprout wings that extend far beyond the hull—make for better texture.
For those who like extra-sweet caramel corn, Yoder advises using varieties with smaller kernels, which allow a greater concentration of caramel. Black Jewell, for example, pops up small and crisp, with very little hull; Red Popcorn is medium size with a good crunch and a nutty flavor. Ladyfinger is a yellow corn with virtually no hull. “But it still has a hard part that you can’t get rid of,” she warns.
The pride of Yoder’s stock is branded Tiny Tender popcorn, a nearly hull-less variety made from the smallest kernels at the tip of the ear, which the Yoders separate out. It is available both yellow and white, the white generally having a milder taste, the yellow a more pronounced corn character. Tiny Tender is too fine to sheath in caramel. It is for eating straight …with melted butter and salt, of course.
Yoder’s family farm, which grows popping corn (butterflies only) and raises hogs, is in the Amish country of northern Indiana—which recently surpassed Nebraska in world popcorn production. Their roadside shop sells kernels ready to pop (stovetop and microwave), oils, salts, seasonings, and poppers. But it is not a place to buy corn on the cob, even at the end-of-summer harvest. Although the popcorn that Native Americans introduced to Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving was popped on the cob and eaten directly off it, popping-corn and eating-corn are now two very different products. Corn destined to be eaten off the cob is softer and, because it is more moist, will pop poorly if at all.
A few hours west of Yoder’s, in Chicago, is the best caramel corn on earth. It is called CaramelCrisp, a name trademarked by Garrett Popcorn Shops, which has four locations in the city. According to Karen Galaba, whose family started Garrett in 1931, the product is special because they use real butter and get kernels that pop bigger than movie-theater popcorn.
The main thing that makes it so good is that it is always served hot and just-popped. Almost as important is the custom-made popcorn blend, which always seems to have the perfect ratio of mushrooms to butterflies. As you wait your turn in line at the flagship store on Michigan Avenue, you can see (and smell) it being air-popped in a jumbo appliance that resembles a superload washing machine. The hot corn that spills out is carried to the rear of the cramped galley kitchen, where it is mixed with caramel. It’s then brought forth in tin buckets, which are dumped at the far left of a cooling table against the wall; there, a woman worries it with two large scoops, ensuring that the hot caramel corn doesn’t clump into pieces larger than three or four popped kernels. Once it achieves the perfect consistency, it is shoveled forward to the other end of the table, scooped into wax-paper bags, and weighed out for customers.
On a pleasant Friday afternoon, two greeters stand at Garrett’s door, opening it for those who enter and informing customers how long it will take to get to the head of the line. The queue is a cramped maze inside the small storefront, and it hasn’t yet spilled out onto the street, meaning the wait is a mere 30 to 35 minutes. The mirrored walls magnify the crowd. Spirits are high among those gathered—a camaraderie akin to that of Star Wars devotees camping out for a premiere.
Standing in line with everybody else are two uniformed delivery men, one from DHL, the other from UPS. The look of impatience on their faces suggests they are not here as a reward after going on their rounds. They are getting caramel corn while on the job.
One man fidgets at the back of the line, and as a few others come in behind him, he announces, “I’m parked at a meter.” He gets on his cellphone to consult with the person he has come to buy a snack for, then thinks out loud, “I’m weighing: Do I get the parking ticket or come home without Garrett’s?” A person in front of him volunteers to hold his place while he goes out to feed the meter.
A girl in line is on her way to visit her mother in Michigan. “If I don’t come with caramel corn, I’m in big trouble,” she says, explaining that a few years ago she used to trade Chicago CaramelCrisp for Detroit Vernor’s ginger ale, but now that Vernor’s is available in the Windy City, she swaps for Sanders Bittersweet Dessert Topping, a fantastic Detroit-made fudge sauce for ice cream.
The discussion of regional favorites causes someone in line to mention Ted’s hot dogs from Buffalo, New York, which he says he likes more than filet mignon. That naturally leads to an animated discussion of Chicago all-beef hot dogs versus New York dirty-water dogs, thin-crust versus thick-crust pizza, Philly cheesesteaks, In-N-Out burgers of the Southwest, and the best place in Chicago to find an old-fashioned Italian steak sandwich (Ricobene’s).
The guy with the car at the meter walks in just moments before the person holding his spot in line places her order. Newcomers at the back of the line begrudge his going to the front and grumble about the ridiculous wait, but today’s old-timers, who were here way back when he left, and who know about his predicament, welcome his return. After all his effort, he orders just a small bag of CheeseCorn.
Unless you’re wearing gloves, it’s impossible to eat Garrett’s cheese corn without your fingers turning bright orange from the cheese that coats and infuses the hot popped kernels. It is hilarious to stroll along Michigan Avenue, known as The Magnificent Mile for its high-end shopping, and see otherwise dapper folks with hands the color of a school bus. Even knowing the mess that inevitably results, including orange stains on jeans and jackets, lips and chins, we cannot stop eating it once we start. The vivid cheese immeasurably enhances the starchy corn flavor of the puffy kernels, making a savory snack that is almost unimprovable.
But it turns out it can get better. Instead of ordering either CaramelCrisp or CheeseCorn, you can ask for a “mix,” also known as a Chicago Mix. A bag is filled halfway with caramel corn, then topped off with cheese corn and shaken. The combo—which stains fingers only half as badly—is a giant taste sensation that seems to cover the whole spectrum of what a tongue can appreciate: salty, sweet, buttery, earthy, crisp, and chewy. It is a perfect food.