Kernels of Comfort

Every day, my popcorn-loving daughter shows me just how meaningful a snack can be.

If you walked into our little home outside Boston between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. on virtually any day of the year, you would find a tall, brown-eyed girl seated at the dining room table next to a giant bowl of popcorn. The girl would have her nose buried in a book, and would thus have to reach for the bowl haphazardly, touching at the kernels, selecting the most promising ones by some mysterious process and feeding them into her mouth.

This would be my oldest child, 11-year-old Josie, enacting a snacking ritual that has become such an integral part of our lives that it has an official name.

It’s called “popcorn o’clock.”

As in, “Is it popcorn o’clock yet?” And, “We need to go home right now, Papa! I don’t want to miss popcorn o’clock.”

Josie is not the only person who participates in popcorn o’clock. Other members of the family are allowed to dip into her supply, though none of us would be so foolish as to remove the bowl from her immediate reach.

Because, around our house, popcorn o’clock isn’t just a designated grazing period. It’s an event that’s become central to the psychic health of our entire family.

If Josie doesn’t get her popcorn fix each afternoon, she transforms from a sweet and sensitive older sister into a dark cloud of discord. And as any parent of multiple siblings will tell you, the difference between a happy eldest child and an unhappy one is the difference between a house full of laughter and one full of tears.

I can imagine there are some of you out there shaking your heads at this point, wondering how a daily dose of buttery carbs could possibly matter so much. This question fits right in with our popular conception of snacks, which is that they’re a silly indulgence meant to quell our cravings, not feed our souls. As a culture, we tend to put snacks in the Trivial Box, the land of empty calories and spoiled brats.

I get it. Before I had kids, I would have agreed with you. But my children, and Josie in particular, have taught me otherwise. Lurking beneath the shiny packaging and sticky jingles is an unexpected truth: Snacks are deep, people.

At least for us. You see, our first-born suffers from what experts call neophobia, which, when it comes to food, is what the rest of us call extreme pickiness.

I like to joke that Josie’s diet consists entirely of the “P” food group: pasta, pizza, pancakes, and popcorn. If I’m being perfectly honest with myself—something I’m not fond of being—these foods make up more than half of her diet.

She’ll eat fruit and cereal and yogurt, sure. But there are entire food groups that are simply off-limits. Vegetables, for instance. And meat. And nuts. And beans. Her designated health food is hummus, but only the plain kind from Trader Joe’s. You get the picture.

Snacking has helped Josie grow as a big sister to Jude (left) and Rosalie.

My wife and I are both adventurous, if not gluttonous, eaters, and we’ve devoted endless hours to pondering how we raised someone who’s so picky at the table.

We often blame ourselves, thinking back to Josie’s difficulty with breastfeeding and how much we worried about her caloric intake during her first few months of life. Were we too lenient in allowing her to pick and choose the foods she would eat, or too strict in forcing her to eat stuff she had to gag down? We’ve read all the books about picky eating, food sensitivity, and allergies.

What we’ve come to realize is that our actions as parents matter a lot less than Josie’s basic character. She’s a kid who feels a lot of anxiety around food, and always has. To her, what she eats isn’t just sustenance. It’s safety versus fear, control versus chaos.

Example: Years ago, we walked with Josie to our local movie theater to watch an animated comedy about prehistoric man, mostly poop jokes with a few scary moments.

On the way home, Josie spotted a display of cupcakes in the window of a bakery and began begging us to buy her one. When we refused, our otherwise cheerful 5-year-old had a complete meltdown, right there on the sidewalk.

Only later did we realize that Josie had been frightened by the movie, and that she’d been looking to that cupcake for comfort.

Which brings us back to popcorn o’clock.

It’s a ritual we instituted just a few months later, when Josie enrolled in kindergarten. She would return home from school in a good mood most days. But by dinnertime, she was almost inevitably in a foul mood, one exacerbated by the shame and frustration of having to come to a table laden with foods she often didn’t like.

We realized that Josie needed some downtime after school, a chance to unwind from the new social and mental pressures. And so, one blessed day, my wife made her a big bowl of popcorn, covered with melted vegan butter and sprinkled with salt.

Almost instantly, we could feel the internal climate of our daughter shift. She sat down at the dining room table with a book and went into a kind of meditative trance. She would respond to questions or comments. But for the most part, she wanted to be left alone to read her book and eat her popcorn.

It was a state I recognized intuitively from my own childhood, when I would settle down with my designated snack: a mug of cold milk, into which I would dunk two graham crackers, mixing them into a sweet grainy mush that I nursed for an hour or more.

What Josie needed was what I’d needed long ago: a dependable pleasure around which she could anchor her emotional life.

Popcorn o’clock became a ritual associated with our home. But it proved even more important on the road. Whenever we traveled to see relatives or for a vacation, we made sure to build popcorn o’clock into the schedule. It became our way of reassuring Josie that we see her, that her needs won’t go unmet, even and especially during periods of transition.

This has become even more important as she’s had to adapt to the presence of needy younger siblings who are often much more forceful in demanding our attention.

Josie has grown into an exemplary big sister, the kind who is fiercely protective of her little brother and sister. But part of the reason she’s able to show this kind of generosity is because she knows we’re looking out for her. The proof, I would argue, is in the popcorn.

A couple of years ago, I encountered the power of this truth during a vacation in Florida. I had gone to the hotel pool to swim with Josie. A bunch of other kids were already in the pool, including a girl, about Josie’s age, who was quite aggressive in seeking my attention. By this I mean that she began climbing all over me.

After a few minutes, I looked around for Josie and saw that she was glaring at me from the edge of the pool. I hurried over to play with her. But she was teary-eyed with rage. When I tried to apologize, Josie walked away. Pretty soon, everyone at the pool was watching this sad drama unfold.

Dad pleading for forgiveness and daughter yelling, “Get away from me!”

Soon after, it dawned on me why she was so mad. The point of our excursion to the pool was to get some one-on-one time, a rare commodity with three kids. By playing with this other girl, I’d betrayed her, and done so publicly. She was returning the favor.

Before long, Josie had left the pool area altogether.

I had no idea what to do. I called my wife, who was back in the room. She had no idea what to do either. And then, suddenly, I checked my watch. It was 2:45 p.m., the heart of popcorn o’clock. I dashed to the front desk of the hotel, explained the situation to the woman there as best as I could, and asked if it might be possible for her to pop up some microwave popcorn.

My desperation must have registered, because she popped two bags and poured the popcorn into a fancy pink bowl (actually, it was a giant flower vase), and gave me another half-dozen bags of microwave popcorn, just to make sure.

My wife called to deliver some intel: Josie had retreated to our room. I rushed over with the vase held before me like an offering.

It was the smell of popcorn that brought my daughter out of hiding, and that allowed me to look her in the eye and apologize for betraying her.

I suppose from a certain angle this might register as a case of snack-related bribery. But what was happening in that room felt to me much more like a genuine reconciliation.

Josie needed something more than words—a deeper proof of my devotion, a reminder that the love that nourishes us doesn’t just reside in ardent apologies or heart-to-heart talks or even hugs. Sometimes, it takes a double batch of buttered popcorn, shared with your dad, on a hotel bed.


Steve Almond is the author of Bad Stories, out April 1. Email him at stevealmondjoy@gmail.com.

Illustration by Natalie Perez

Originally Published July 2018