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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, divided
- 2 cups popcorn kernels
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons salt, divided (fine-grained)
- 1 1/2 cups butter (3/4 lb)
- 2 cups light brown sugar
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup cheddar cheese powder
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
For the caramel corn:
1. Preheat the oven to 250F.
2. Melt half of the coconut oil in a large pot with a lid over medium-high heat. Add 3-4 popcorn kernels, cover the pot and wait until they pop. Add 1 cup of the kernels and shake well to coat in the oil. Continue heating, shaking every few minutes until the rate of popping slows and most of the kernels have popped.
3. Empty the kernels into a brown paper bag, add 2 teaspoons of salt, and shake to distribute the salt and drain the excess oil. Then, spread the popcorn in a large roasting pan or several baking sheets.
4. Combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, 1 cup of butter, and the baking soda in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer. Cook until it reaches 235F, which should take about 8 minutes.
5. Immediately remove the caramel from the heat and add the vanilla carefully—the caramel will bubble & spit molten candy at you, so you want to drop it in and immediately pull your hand away. After the bubbling subsides, stir in the vanilla, and pour the caramel over the popcorn. Then, stir to coat evenly.
6. Bake for about an hour in the preheated oven, stirring every 10-15 minutes. It’s done when the caramel is no longer dripping onto the bottom of the pan and instead has hardened into a crisp shell around every piece. Remove and let cool completely, and then break apart any large clumps by hand.
1. Repeat steps 2 and 3 above with the remaining coconut oil and popcorn kernels, but this time return the popcorn to the pot.
2. Melt the remaining 1/2 cup of butter in a saucepan or microwave, pour over the popped corn, and shake or stir to coat evenly.
3. Whisk together the cheese powder, mustard powder, chili powder, and 1 Tablespoon salt and pour that over the buttered popcorn. Again, shake or stir to coat. Taste and add more salt if desired.
Combine, or don’t. Store in airtight containers.