Pop Secret? It's In The Sand

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

August 07, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Maybe it is breathing the sea air. Or maybe it is swallowing the salt water. Whatever the reason, popcorn tastes better when you are at the ocean.

Among the rituals I engage in when my family makes its summer pilgrimage to the Atlantic Ocean is the midday popping of the corn. After a few hours of floating on the waves on an air mattress, I crave popcorn. Retreating to the kitchen of the beach house, I put a pan on the stove, heat vegetable oil in it until two or three test kernels of popcorn burst. Then I cover the bottom of the pan with more kernels, put a lid on the pan, start popping, and finish off with salt and melted butter. There is something about being barefoot at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and eating a bowl of pleasure that makes you feel like you are on vacation.

With or without their shoes on, Marylanders have been eating popcorn at the beach for years. I found this out after talking with two barons of the Ocean City popcorn scene, Rudolph William Dolle Jr. and Donald R. Fisher, and with Joe Bernard, whose Queenstown firm, Wye River Inc., is hoping to capitalize on the region's popcorn-eating habits by calling its bags of cheese, butter and caramel corn "Downy Ocean Hon!". Bags of the popcorn product with the malapropism name have been in area stores since February.

After operating a merry-go-round in South Baltimore on the grounds of what is now the Harbor Hospital Center, the Dolle family moved themselves and their carrousel to Ocean City in 1910. Once there, they started making salt water taffy and a year later added fresh popped popcorn to the menu. Ever since then, folks have been lining up at the Dolle Candyland stand at the Boardwalk and Wicomico Street for containers of buttered or caramel corn, which today range from 70-cent boxes to $17 tubs.

The popularity of popcorn is based on two factors, said Rudolph Dolle. The first is habit. "When people get to the beach, they just have to have popcorn, ice cream, french fries."

The other factor is taste. When people are treating themselves, he said, they don't want imitation flavors. "We use honest-to-God butter," Dolle said. "We say if you put good in, good comes out."

Donald R. Fisher, the 64-year-old proprietor of Fisher's Popcorn, learned the business from his father, Everett. At the age of 7, Donald folded popcorn boxes, and at the age of 14, he became chief popper when his dad was drafted to fight in World War II.

Back in 1944, his popcorn business was a summer-only operation. Now Fisher's, at Talbot Street and the Boardwalk, is a year-round enterprise, supervised by Fisher, his son Donald and daughter Cindy. In addition to having healthy summertime sales, the business also does a brisk trade around Christmas, shipping tubs of popcorn ranging from $4.50 a gallon to $28 for 6 1/2 gallons to customers around the country.

Some customers give the tubs of popcorn to neighbors who took care of the dog, or watched the house, while the family was at the beach, Fisher said. A lot of doctors and dentists send gifts of popcorn to thank people who sent them referrals, Fisher said.

Such a friendly reception to popcorn from members of the medical community is interesting in light of the furor raised this spring about the high fat content of movie-theater popcorn cooked in coconut oil. Until then popcorn had enjoyed something of an undeserved reputation among snackers as a health food. Groups such as the National Cancer Institute, the American Dental Association and American Diabetes Association recommended air-popped popcorn as a good source of fiber and a sugar-free snack.

Gail A. Levey, a registered dietitian in New York and a spokeswoman for the American Dietitic Association, gave me some perspective on popcorn's nutritional value. Popcorn, she said, is like bread. If you don't put anything on it, it is good for you. But if you coat it, either by cooking it in oils high in saturated fat, or by topping it with butter, the nutritional benefits fade.

Air-popped popcorn with no toppings is probably the most nutritionally correct popcorn, high in fiber with virtually no

calories or sodium, she said. But many people can't stand the taste. Popcorn cooked in coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but also has excellent flavor. Both Dolle and Fisher use coconut oil to pop the corn used to make their buttered popcorn. Their caramel corn, which gets much of its flavor from its sugary coating, is popped over an open flame without oil. Downy The Ocean Hon! popcorn, which is coated with cheese, butter or caramel, is popped in canola oil, a lower-fat oil.

One good strategy for a popcorn lover concerned about nutrition, Ms. Levy said, is to shop around for a popcorn cooked in low-fat oil that has enough flavor to satisfy a craving for popcorn. Bags of microwave popcorn, she said, now have the fat content on the label. At home you could experiment with air-popped corn or with popping corn in canola, olive or vegetable oils.

Another strategy, she said, is to go ahead and enjoy an occasional bag of good old high-fat, high-flavor beach popcorn, but not do it every day. To which I add, be sure and takes your shoes and socks off. Popcorn always taste better when your toes are sandy.

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