The bygone days of popcorn balls

Andreae Prozesky pops the pop and walks the walk.  

Food nerd that I may be, in my constant quest for new excuses to spend hours in the kitchen performing the most fiddly of tasks, I have yet to make my own Hallowe’en candy. I have happily made candied lemon peel for my Christmas fruitcake (stop laughing), and I even once made home-made caramel pecan candies and chocolate-dipped hazelnuts for a Valentine’s fundraiser. But Hallowe’en goods have always been strictly pre-packaged.

This is likely because I grew up in the 1980s, in a world where everyone knew someone whose cousin’s best friend’s other best friend had totally found a razorblade in her apple, “ohmigod, I swear.” Ah, the good old days of candy tampering. It was enough to scare the ba-jeezus out of enough parents and kids that the old standbys of Hallowe’en – candy apples, un-candy apples, little twist-tied sandwich bags of popcorn, and filling-loosening popcorn balls – are just memories now. Never mind that the candy tampering phenomenon was almost entirely fabricated.

Of course, as a kid, I would have been just fine with having the more homespun bits of the Hallowe’en haul confiscated. Apples? Who needs ’em, caramel-dipped or otherwise! The same goes for popcorn, in any form. I might get caught up in nostalgia thinking of them now, but it’s a false nostalgia. My childhood was spent in the dedicated pursuit of Hallowe’en sugar, and the more factory-made the better. Powdery pastel rockets, in their transparent sleeves. Tongue-colouring lollypops, dissolved down to their white cardboard sticks (which tasted like bleach but which ended up chewed to a pulp nonetheless). Those most-maligned molasses kisses, which I will still plunder from children’s Hallowe’en pillowcases if given the chance. Tiny versions of regular chocolate bars, all the more delicious in their diminutive form. And small, slightly flattened bags of potato chips, which were generally ketchup-flavoured and earmarked for my sister’s consumption.

In the face of the candy-tampering scare and the wanton Hallowe’en consumerism of the 1970s and 80s, some brave parents were still popping popcorn and risking sugar-syrup burns for the sake of the neighbourhood children. My friend Lesley’s mom, Linda, made popcorn balls for years. This seems consistent with the generally wholesome sorts of things that came out of Lesley’s folks’ kitchen, although, as Linda points out, “these things don’t even approach a near rating as health food, even with the popcorn content.”

But there was a nostalgia factor at work, too. Linda had sweet childhood memories of her neighbour Mrs. Pinkney’s popcorn balls, and wanted to bring popcorn balls to a new generation. By the time Linda decided to pack up the corn syrup and abandon the popcorn ball tradition, there were some broken-hearted youngsters on the block, including a couple of guys who made a special trip to Linda’s house in anticipation.

Well, that’s testimonial enough for me. Linda assures me that her recipe, from a 1970 cookbook, is “time consuming and messy.” But as far as I’m concerned that’s more of an invitation than a deterrent. I may not have had very discerning taste as a child, but I’m more than happy to try and make up for it now. I can’t guarantee that any of them will actually make it out the door on the thirty-first though.

Popcorn balls and I have some catching up to do.

Old-time popcorn balls

2 cups granulated sugar
1 ½ cups water
½  teaspoon salt
½ cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 quarts popped corn

Pop corn and pick out any burnt bits (unpopped kernels can stay in).

Butter the sides of a medium saucepan.  In it combine sugar, water, salt, corn syrup, and vinegar.  Bring to a boil and cook to hard ball stage. This means that a candy thermometer inserted in the mixture will read 250F, or that a small amount of syrup, dropped into a glass of cold water, will form a hard but pliable ball. Stir in vanilla, and slowly pour hot mixture over popped corn, stirring just to mix well. Butter hands lightly.  Shape the now-sticky popcorn into baseball-sized balls, being careful not to burn your hands. Makes 15 to 20 balls. Linda says, “Mrs. Pinkney just served them up on a platter. But I used to wrap them in cellophane, tied up with orange ribbon.”

Send your questions, comments, suggestions and candy to dreae@thescope.ca

One comment

  1. lesley · February 11, 2011

    If you were fooled the masked little ones, they are none other than my sweet sister Faye and brother Andrew. I think this was taken in 1977 in Vancouver when mom (Linda) was still pregant with me. She not only made the popcorn balls but the orange capes as well.

    Thanks Dreae, mom has always deserved props for this family tradition.