Eating is also about filling our hearts

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006

The holiday season is a time of year rich in food traditions. In kitchens everywhere, people bake cookies and fruitcakes, construct elaborate gingerbread houses and fuss over gravies and sauces, even if during the rest of the year the most cooking they do is put bread in the toaster. At this time, I am reminded that food has social, emotional and even spiritual dimensions that we too often ignore. Eating isn't just about filling our stomachs. It is also about filling our hearts.

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Most of us have fond memories from childhood of certain meals or special foods that we associate with someone we love. I remember my grandma used to make doughnuts when she visited. One of her hot doughnuts plucked from a bubbling vat of oil and dipped in sugar was my idea of heaven on earth. Nothing bought from a store could compare.

This illustrates for me the basic truth that man does not live by bread alone. The intangible qualities that derive from relationships, context and intention are at least as important as the atoms and molecules that make up the apparent "stuff" of life. The purely materialistic point of view is bereft because it is incomplete. But I digress.

My mom wasn't an enthusiastic baker during the rest of the year, but when the holiday season came up, she went into overdrive. She would churn out a wide variety of cookies and other tasty morsels in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For some reason, what I remember most vividly were her popcorn balls.

I decided recently that I would make popcorn balls to revive this family tradition. However, I am what you might call a fussy eater. I couldn't use the corn syrup in her recipe because the corn used to make it was genetically engineered. So I used brown rice syrup along with Sucanat, which is dried cane sugar with a rich molasses-like flavor.

Food coloring is out too, so my popcorn balls were brown instead of green and red. I threw in some sunflower seeds and dried cranberries for extra texture and flavor when I saw a popcorn ball recipe that did that. The result wasn't quite like what my mom used to make, but it was darn good. It tasted a lot like cracker jacks. Here's my recipe:

Popcorn Balls

12 cups popped popcorn

½ cup brown rice syrup

¾ cup Sucanat or brown sugar

¼ cup water

½ cup toasted sunflower seeds

½ cup dried cranberries

A dash of salt

A little oil or butter

Combine the rice syrup, Sucanat, and water in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Let it bubble for a few minutes, then pour the mixture over the popcorn. Add in the sunflower seeds and cranberries and mix it all together so everything is coated with the syrup. Spread the mixture on a buttered or oiled baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated oven at 300 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven. Wash your hands in cold water and press the mixture into balls. You'll need to work gingerly because it is pretty hot. You can wash your hands before making each ball to cool down. Work as quickly as you can. If the mixture starts to cool and harden before you've made all your popcorn balls, you can stick it back into the oven for a minute to soften it up. This recipe makes 10-12 medium sized popcorn balls.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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