Congratulations popcorn, you’re our first inductee to the Snack Hall of Fame

Welcome to the Snack Hall of Fame, an ongoing project in which Dominic Corry celebrates cinema’s most iconic edible accompaniments. 

I’ve spent most of my life writing and talking about movies professionally, a privilege borne out of an enduring and pronounced passion for cinema. And to be honest, I don’t think I’d be here without the snacks.

As a kid growing up in New Zealand and going to the movies, the food I got to eat there was more than 50% of the appeal of the excursion. Any situation in which I was guaranteed to be allowed junk food was what I got most excited about, be in a movie, or a birthday party or whatever.

Movies were the most regular of these occasions, and knowing that I would likely be able to acquire a fizzy drink, some popcorn and a Rocky Dip (more on those later) usually got me more amped up than, say, the notion of seeing Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage switch bodies.

These days, it’s (slightly) more about the movies than the food for me, but cinema snacks still play an intrinsic, emotional role in the act of cinema-going for everyone in the theater. Even those weirdos who smuggle in scroggin.

We here at Flicks believe movie snacks go a little under-acknowledged in the cinema discourse, so we’re gonna talk about ’em. Ideally with a healthy mixture of personal opinion and empirical truths.

And where else to start, but with popcorn?

So inextricably linked to the act of watching movies that it has become a synonym for cinema itself, popcorn has been linked to cinema-going for about a century now. I always presumed it become the default cinema snack because it was one you could eat in relative silence—i.e it wasn’t crunchy, and thus not distracting.

But the consensus appears to be that the prevalence of popcorn came about because it was so cheap, and during the Great Depression, when movie-going was calcified as the go-to entertainment activity in America and then much of the Western world, the cheapness of things was important. (Go deeper into popcorn’s history here).

As with most snacks, there is considerable batch variation when it comes to popcorn—what a theater makes one day can be very different to what it presents the next. And there are perhaps some observable differences across the different cinema chains.

But. if I was forced to describe New Zealand popcorn in general terms, I would say that it is slightly saltier and slightly more brittle than most of the popcorn found in America, a country that sometimes seems like it was built on top of a popcorn volcano. American popcorn is a bit softer, more pillowy, and presents with a more neutral flavour.

That’s the popcorn itself—when it comes to how it is served, the differences are more vast.

Firstly, American popcorn is more likely to be served at a slightly warmer temperature than the popcorn served in New Zealand cinemas. Which is a key factor in the appeal of what has become a tradition in American cinemas: emptying packets of Malteasers or Milk Duds (chocolate-covered chewy caramel candy) into your bucket of popcorn. The extra heat in US popcorn helps soften and even melt a little said chocolately additions, which is fun.

The main difference, however, is that with American popcorn, you generally have the option to pour melted butter over the top. Or more often, a yellow, butter-flavoured liquid. God bless America.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of such a serving suggestion, but as with many American cultural specificities, it does make things considerably messier. When I lived in the States, I lost a number of my favourite shirts to the permanent stains caused by drips of yellow gunk that fell off my handfuls in the dark.

Butter on movie popcorn is a fun novelty every now and then, but I think I’m mostly grateful that it isn’t the prevailing style in New Zealand.

It’s also not out of the ordinary to have the option to buy “Sweet n Salty” popcorn in American chains. You can easily get these variations in packets in New Zealand, but I’ve yet to see it available freshly popped.

As health-conscious snackers sought alternatives to potato chips and other less healthy snack options, flavoured popcorn has risen in prominence. But again, it’s generally all in packets, and generally not available at the cinema.

I detest microwave popcorn, but I sometimes seek out a bag of pre-popped Pop ‘N’ Good, which used to be a staple in video stores. This packaged variant has an indefinable quality that I find appealing. You might call it “staleness”. But that slightly stale vibe makes the popcorn a bit softer, and a bit chewier. Every now and then, it really hits the spot.

But here is where I admit that for the most part, I am fully over movie popcorn. Thanks to being a film critic for twenty years, where a free box is de rigueur, I’ve eaten enough for a dozen lifetimes, but I mostly don’t enjoy it these days. I always feel bloated after eating popcorn—it feels like too much air gets in as I’m stuffing my maw.

But that’s the weird thing about popcorn—you keep eating it after you stop enjoying it. At most screenings I attend, there is a box of it waiting on the chair for me. I resolve to not eat it. Then I eat it. I resolve to only eat one handful. Then I eat the whole box. It is insidious.

But I almost never purchase it. Because I’m sick of it. There are many other options for movie snacks, both sweet and savoury. And we are gonna get into them. This is the Snack Hall of Fame.