In Defense of Cheddar-Caramel Popcorn
courtesy of Garrett
Ho Hos. Peeps. Jack in the Box onion rings. We all have it — that low-end dish or snack item that tops our own personal food pyramid. What's yours? All week we'll ask some of our favorite writers to dig deep and cough up their favorites.
It’s midnight, and I’m sprinting through Chicago O’Hare Airport. I’m not late for a connecting flight; the plane I’m taking to Cleveland doesn’t leave for another two hours. I’m headed not toward the gates, but away from them — racing toward a tin of sweet, cheesy popcorn.
The only thing I hate more than Chicago O’Hare — a detestable warren of corridors arranged into a miles-long obstacle course studded with ugly neon “art” — is the fact that I’m not able to subsist on only Garrett CaramelCrisp popcorn. I’d gladly eat nothing but this shocking combination of cheddar-cheese-and-caramel popcorn, most famously for sale at O’Hare, where it’s made round-the-clock in giant copper tubs.
You can smell its sweet, corny goodness the minute you exit any plane there.
The result of a family competition to see who could make the best caramel corn, the Garrett recipe traveled from Milwaukee to the family’s first popcorn shop in Chicago in 1949. The Garrett popcorn formula is closely held, which is fine with me. I don’t want to make the stuff, I want to eat it. (A lot of it. All the time.) But this much is known: Garrett kernels are air-popped, so there’s no icky oil aftertaste. They’re mixed with melted caramel in copper kettles then separated, one kernel from another, to avoid clumping.
The Garretts understand the importance of real butter and brown sugar. And their cheese corn isn’t tossed in cheddar-flavored powder, but in actual cheese that these kindhearted people have somehow magically pulverized.
As smart as the Garretts were about how to make things taste really good, they didn’t come up with the idea of combining cheese and caramel corn. Their customers did. People started buying half bags of caramel corn (called CaramelCrisp in Garrett-speak) and half bags of the cheesy kind (CheeseCorn), and combining them.
I don’t care who got wise to this taste sensation, I only care about how the combination of sweet brown sugar, salty butter, and sharp cheddar tastes in my mouth. If a magic wizard turned up in my life and offered me a lifetime supply of either cash or Garrett popcorn, I’m afraid I’d die a pauper with cheese-stained fingers.
I always tell myself I’m not going to eat the whole can in a single day, but somehow this never works out. (I once tried buying two cans, thinking I couldn’t possibly eat that much Garrett in a single day. I was correct. But by lunchtime on the second day, both my willpower and the cheesy-caramel popcorn were wasted.)
If it were dusted with heroin, Garrett popcorn couldn’t be more addictive.
Caramel-and-cheese-corn infatuations were likely less of a concern back when Garretts could only be purchased in person, in Chicago. But the magic of the internet means I can order a tin of this stuff whenever I like, and have it—still fresh, thanks to vacuum-air foil bags—in a day or two.
My deep love for Garrett has occasionally led me to duplicity and sneakiness. When my husband and I received a tin of the stuff for Christmas a few years ago, I inhaled the entire thing in an afternoon.
Ashamed of my selfish gluttony, I drove to Walgreen’s, where I purchased a giant box of Cracker Jack and a bag of something called Cheezy Corn. I dumped both into the Garretts tin, gave it a quick shake, and set it in the pantry.
“You’re not eating the Garrett?” I asked my husband when, after several days, he hadn’t touched my faked-up treat.
“Nah,” he replied. “You like that stuff so much more than I do. You go ahead and eat it!”
I did, as soon as he went to bed that night. And it was terrible. The cheese tasted like sawdust; the caramel corn like vegetable oil. Mouthful after mouthful of this awful stuff is precisely what I deserved for trying to fool my lovely spouse. And for making a mockery of the best-tasting snack food in the world.
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