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Cousin Grace's popcorn balls

Missing holiday recipe serves as a savory reminder to push forward despite challenging circumstances


In my wispy, earliest memories, I am staring at bubble lights, red, yellow, green, blue, bounce magically around Cousin Grace’s Christmas tree. The scent of the fresh-cut cedar merges with a sweet, spicy aroma drifting from her kitchen, and I grasp in my childish way that this fragrance somehow is Christmas.

Cousin Grace and my mother call for me, then, to come to them through the wide opening that connects her small living room to her equally small, yet oh-so-pretty, dining room. There, treats parade across the top of her high, mahogany sideboard: a white-frosted cake perched on a pink glass pedestal; chunks of fudge nestled inside a clear, sparkling dish with a lid; and fancy-looking homemade cookies and treats piled on a big, black, metal tray edged in painted flowers. Bedazzled, I stand silent, waiting.

“What would you like, Georgia-Dexter?” Cousin Grace asks. She uses both my names in our Kentucky-way and holds the large tray low in front of me so that I can choose. I reach first – always – for one of the red and green popcorn balls piled in a pyramid in the center.

And so, in December 2020, after “the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” year of COVID-19 that we had lived through, I became obsessed with re-creating Cousin Grace’s magnificent popcorn balls. I knew that her legendary baking skills were beyond my reach, but perhaps I could stir up the equal of her popcorn balls. If I could – well, I irrationally fantasized that I could “save Christmas” – for my family. For myself. That somehow innocence would be restored, and the earth would once again circle the sun without wobbling.

But I didn’t have her recipe. I hadn’t even eaten a homemade popcorn ball in 50 years. Oh, I found a thousand versions online, but what does a computer know about the enchantment that Cousin Grace conjured up in her kitchen? As trim and stylish as a TV-sitcom mom, she was our own red-haired version of Martha Stewart long before Martha got her start.

She outdid herself in December, beginning with elaborate pressed spritz cookies and then moving on to thin, Scandinavian rectangles with intricate baked-in designs. She artfully frosted cut images of Santa, trees, stars, and gingerbread men that tasted as good as they looked and whipped up batches of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate fudge, light-as-air white divinity, plus a cake or two. But in my youthful estimation, the colorful popcorn balls were her pièce de résistance.

A lifetime later, I appreciate the difficulties she overcame to create this magic. Like most in our rural community, her tiny kitchen, circa 1949, did not yet have running water, much less hot water. Her counter workspace measured about two feet and had to be augmented by the surface of the breakfast table. As if her culinary sorcery were not enough, she also over-achieved at decorating her small country house, and with this and that and nothing much, had it strutting in magazine-worthy décor in all seasons, but especially at the holidays. Her creativity merged with her fierce determination to provide her family the best she could muster.

I doubted if even Cousin Grace could have overcome the unique challenges of Christmas 2020, however, and I didn’t even have her popcorn ball recipe. Then – at the lowest moment of my self-pitying despair – a Facebook friend mailed me her grandmother’s carefully guarded version. The secret ingredient in this heirloom receipt was sorghum molasses from Barren County, Kentucky. Ideally, the molasses should be obtained from a particular farm at a particular month and hour in the calendar. But I figured any old sorghum would do.

Now mind you, I had not stepped inside a supermarket since March when the Covid pandemic began. I had, however, developed a friendly online relationship with my proxy “personal shopper,” Robert.

“Sorghum? Are you kidding?” Robert texted.

“Karo syrup, then?”

“Nope. Not a single bottle.”

“Pancake syrup?”

“No – wait, I’ve found one bottle of ‘Grandma’s Molasses.’ Will that do?”

“Yes!” Maybe the brand name was a providential sign.

It wasn’t. The old recipe spoke of mysterious “ball stages,” and before I knew it, I had zipped right past soft-medium-hard into the stick-to-the sides-and-bottom-of-the-pan ball stage.

Still, I was undaunted. I saved what I could and poured it over my popped corn and began to stir like crazy. Finally, I plopped the hot glob onto wax paper, and with buttery hands, began to pry the mess into individual servings. It resisted rounding into balls, but what the hey, sweet lumps would have to do.

I considered throwing the pot away. But “waste not, want not,” Mother and Cousin Grace whispered, so I tackled the two-day task of releasing the gook from its innards. I began to worry, however, if this concoction would stick to our insides as it had stuck to the pan.

It did. Beginning with my teeth.

My popcorn lumps were not going to “save” anything, I realized. But then – oh, it was a Christmas miracle – I found Cousin Grace’s lost recipe!

To my surprise, it called for only one ingredient, and I had a lot of that on hand: determination to flourish despite challenging circumstances.

And so, Christmas 2020 will be remembered in my family as the year we creatively found new ways to celebrate together despite the Covid pandemic. We Zoomed. We FaceTimed. We sang Christmas carols from our car windows and dropped presents outside front doors as we rang the doorbell and ran away giggling. We worshiped on Christmas Eve with our church family via Facebook. We gathered outdoors around a bonfire. We stood in our driveways in our winter coats and talked, grateful for the time together. We made each other laugh in any way we could.

We said, “I love you” over and over.

And so that I never lose Cousin Grace’s recipe again, I am sharing it here with all of you. Hold it tight but pass it on.

Georgia Green Stamper grew up on a tobacco farm in Owen County. She will publish her third book of essays titled “Small Acreages” in spring 2022 with award-winning independent publisher Shadelandhouse Modern Press, of Lexington, Kentucky.


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