October 2012

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Chicago Mix Popcorn

Oct 15 2012

not actually floating in space--although that's a fun effect of the black plastic bowl

Origins of the Chicago Mix 

The tailgate I went to last weekend at the Michigan-Illinois game had a “Taste of Chicago” theme, so I decided to make Chicago Mix popcorn. Although Chicago lays claim to lots of foods, the combination of caramel & cheddar popcorn is one of only a few I know of where the city’s name refers to a distinctive style instead of just something the city claims to do especially well. The other two are hot dogs with celery salt and pickles and deep-dish pizza with a biscuit-style crust.

Chicago Mix popcorn was originally created by Garrett Popcorn customers. After watching people buy separate bags of caramel and cheese corn and then awkwardly try to combine the two, Garrett’s decided to do the mixing for them. Although Garrett’s now has locations in New York, Las Vegas, Dubai, Malaysia, Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the brand is still pretty invested in advertising themselves as a “Chicago tradition,” and since the caramel & cheese mix is somewhat distinctive, it’s become a kind of brand signature.

The back of a scorecard from an 1896 baseball game between the Atlantic City Base Ball Club and the Cuban Giants. The ad says: "Have you tied Cracker Jack? The New Confection SO GOOD!! TRY IT!! The more you EAT The more you want. Sold Everywhere ~ Exclusively on these Grounds." It lists the price as 5 c. per package, and at the bottom says "F. W. Rueckstein, MFRS. Chicago, Illinois" and gives street addresses for Philadelphia and New York offices. Click for source + bigger.  However, the association between caramel corn and Chicago long predates Garrett’s, which was founded in 1949. According the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (via Food Timeline), caramel corn was invented by a pair of German immigrant brothers named Fritz and Louis Rueckheim who moved to Chicago in 1872 to help clean up and rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire. They started selling popcorn from a cart, likely after 1885, which was when another Chicago entrepreneur named Charlie Cretors began selling the mobile, steam-powered peanut roaster he’d invented, which also turned out to be useful for popping corn. Combining the roasters’ strengths, the Rueckheim brothers developed a molasses-coated popcorn and peanut combination they called “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” It was a big hit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  

However, it was also kind of a sticky mess, as molasses-coated things tend to be. In 1896, the Rueckheim brothers discovered that they could prevent the kernels from clumping together if they added a little oil during the candying stage. According to popular legend, a salesman on hand the first time they tried the new technique got a taste and declared, “That's crackerjack!" (1896-ese for “awesome”). And that’s how the iconic American brand got its name. It was initially sold primarily at public entertainments like circuses and sporting events, and immortalized in the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” in 1908. Undated boxes, alhough the one on the left must be post-1997 becasue it has the Frito Lay emblem on the side, and that's the year they acquired the brand from Borden.

By 1913, Cracker Jack was the best-selling confection in the world (again, so sayeth the Oxford Encyclopedia). That’s one year after they started adding the “prize in every box!”—usually a small trinket, riddle, or  baseball card. Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo were added to the package in 1918 and became the official trademark in 1919, supposedly inspired by one of the Rueckheim’s grandsons (and also appealing to post-WWI patriotism). The brand was still going strong in 1970, when 41% of American households purchased the product (no word on what percent of consumed the product at ballparks).

Recipe Notes

You could always just buy some caramel corn & cheese corn and combine them, but I think Garrett’s caramel corn is tastier than most of the bagged brands I’ve had. In an attempt to produce a more faithful reproduction, I used a recipe from the Chicago Tribune test kitchen specifically designed to mimic Garrett’s, which has a lighter caramel and higher candy: popcorn ratio than Cracker Jack and a richer, more buttery caramel flavor than Crunch ‘n Munch. If you wanted a darker caramel, here's a recipe that uses molasses instead of corn syrup.

one batch just fit in my roasting pan & would probably fill two 9x13 pans

I used yellow popcorn instead of white—the latter has a softer kernel, but never seems to pop up as fluffy, and I’ll take fluffier poofs with a harder kernel any day. According to David Lebovitz, Garrett’s uses their own special hybrid variety of corn. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla to the caramel just before pouring it over the popcorn. Other than that, I followed the recipe exactly and it came out incredibly buttery and addictively salty-sweet on its own.

oddly, it doesn't mention any coloring agents, so I'm not sure if the orange is Red 40 + Yellow 06 or annatto or something else; disodium phosphate is an anti-caking agent For the cheese corn, I used dehydrated cheddar cheese from another Chicago company, The Spice House. According to the package, 3 lbs of cheese yields 2 lbs of powder. It looks and tastes a lot like the powder that comes in boxes of macaroni and cheese—though perhaps a little less salty. If you don’t want your popcorn to have a lurid orange hue, you could use a white cheddar powder instead. A little mustard powder and chili or cayenne amp up the tangy cheese flavor and give it just a little heat, which you could increase if desired or leave out entirely. You could also add nutritional yeast and/or MSG, but it’s not necessary. Cheddar cheese powder is plenty umami all on its own. 

As for the combination—it’s not quite chocolate & peanut butter or strawberries & cream, but it is strangely compelling. Probably in the same camp as apple pie with cheddar cheese.

I took them separately, too, in case some people didn't like the combination. The bottom bowl, I shook until it looked like the picture at the top. Read more »

Childhood Vices & Flaming Hot Spices: Why Nothing Compares to H O T Cheetos

Oct 11 2012

Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…

This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first facebook.com referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:


In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.

For Youth By Youth?

Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of Billboard.com cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it's apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:

I haven't had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.

I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.

Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos

Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:

I can't wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.

Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.

Anyone else initially mistake the rabbit on the RAWK font package for some kind of lobster/alien hybrid? Or was that just me?

I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.

All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.

*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless. Read more »