In a family where Italian roots run deep, my mother’s non-Italian culinary heritage has had to fight for a place on the table. To be sure, a great many of her dishes are Sunday dinner regulars. Her spaghetti salad is a summer barbecue staple; though, I imagine it must have been anathema to the in-laws back in the day. (“Johnny, your wife with the spaghetti and the mayonnaise — what’s goin’ on here?”)
And while many of these recipes are favorites of my siblings and mine, they lag behind the Italian dishes in the pantheon of family food traditions.
Thanksgiving has the creatively named Italian peas. Christmas has Spaghetti Olio and baccalà. Easter has its eponymous pie. (It’s worth noting here that my mother has been instrumental in perfecting each one of these dishes; without her they wouldn’t be the tradition that they are today.)
But one food tradition form my mother’s side that has endured is her Halloween popcorn balls — salty-sweet spheres of popcorn and molasses that, depending on freshness, are either tasty treats of deadly weapons.
A little digging revealed that popcorn balls dated back to the mid-19th century. New York cookbook author E.F. Haskell included the recipe in her “Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia” first published in 1861.
Another more fantastical story, however, comes out of Nebraska. While corn is perhaps the state’s most distinctive crop — it is the “Corn-husker State” — sorghum is another important cash crop. When processed with water, it produces syrup. (You see where I’m going here?)
According to the myth, Nebraska, which is known for extreme seasonal weather, endured a period locals branded “The Year of Striped Weather” — when it was both very hot and very wet. As one source put it, “whole pigs roasted to perfection in the sun, or were drowned in their pens by the rain.”
One day in August, it rained so hard on one farm that sorghum syrup leaked right from the grasses and drained into a nearby cornfield. The weather then turned extremely hot; so hot, in fact, that every kernel of corn in the field dried out and popped. If that weren’t enough, a tornado quickly swept through the field — because, you know, why not?
At the end of this meteorological onslaught, the farmer discovered “perfectly formed popcorn balls over a hundred feet high stood in the fields.” Unfortunately, no proof of this event exists since the monster popcorn balls were (conveniently) devoured by a plague of grasshoppers the very next day.
By comparison, the origin of popcorn balls in my mother’s family is far less arresting. According to my mother, the recipe was a Halloween staple of her paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother) Lula Ross.
As my mother tells it, Grandma Lu’s Kendall Avenue house was a locus of activity on any given day, with neighbors, friends and family passing through to visit and grab a bite. By all accounts, Lula was a stellar cook, and the one whom my mother credits for her equally impressive culinary prowess.
Wanting to treat the neighborhood kids on Halloween, Lula would make a batch of popcorn balls and pass them out to only those who identified themselves by family name (these weren’t for just anyone, you know?)
Growing up in my house, popcorn balls were always an early sign of Halloween. In the week leading up to the 31st, my mother would be busy popping corn and rolling and wrapping the balls in colored plastic wrap.
Like my great-grandmother, my mother doled her popcorn balls out judiciously, packing small baskets to send to her former Kendall Avenue neighbors from decades earlier. As adults, my mother notes that the treat immediately brings her back to her childhood — a warm piece of nostalgia she eagerly shares with these childhood friends.
Baskets also always found their way to my sibling and me. When I headed to college, I thought that was the end of the tradition, but sure enough, a couple days before Halloween, a nondescript box arrived with a dozen fresh popcorn balls and a note from my mother.
This continued even when she and my father began spending their autumns and winters in Florida, becoming an even more meaningful gesture given the distance.
Then , one year, it stopped. As Halloween slipped by with still no sign, I accepted that the tradition had passed. I was getting older, and while my outward attitude toward my parents was to want to push them away at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to let go of some of those little things that echoed back to my childhood.
At Thanksgiving, I casually inquired, careful to make it not look like I cared too much.
“Your brother and sisters told me they didn’t want me to make them anymore. I just assumed you felt the same way,” she said with a subtle note of rejection and resignation in that order.
“Well, I wanted them,” I said, explaining that I not only appreciated the tradition, but I actually liked to eat them. (Apparently, my siblings had been politely choking them down all these years and had finally had enough.)
This reaffirmation was all she needed. A few days later, when I arrived back at school, I received a small, nondescript box. Inside, were a dozen popcorn balls and a note.
Over the years, the batches have gotten smaller. Some of my mother’s friends have neighbors have passed away. My siblings continue to abstain. But each year, before Halloween, I remind my mother that I’m still expecting her popcorn balls, and the tradition endures.
12 oz molasses
1 stick butter
1 cup popcorn, un-popped
Pour the popcorn kernels into a large, deep pan. Cover lightly with vegetable oil. Cover and cook on high heat until popped. His should yield 4 quarts of popped popcorn. (Try to remove unpopped kernels as best you can.)
In a small saucepan, bring the molasses and butter to a boil (about 249 degree; check with a candy themometer).
In a large bowl, pour the syrup over the popcorn and mix together so the popcorn is sufficiently coated. With your hands, form tennis ball-sized sphere.
Let set, and wrap individually with plastic wrap. Yields 16 balls.