Lately I’ve been taking a second look at the late Jim Sleeper’s celebrated almanacs of Orange County "historical oddities." Only three were published—in 1971, 1974, and 1986—and they're all out of print. But for those who enjoy reading about the more bizarre aspects of this area's history, a trip to one of our county's libraries—where the almanacs sometimes can be found, though typically as noncirculating reference books—is probably your best bet.
Not only are Jim's almanacs chock-full of all sorts of somewhat off-kilter to seriously strange information, but each also is infused with Jim’s laconic leg-pulling. As he states in the 1974 edition’s preface, "When our first Almanac appeared, we boldly predicted that it would easily sell eight copies. Now, four years later, with that goal well in sight, it is time for a second."
OF PIONEERS & POPCORN Back in July I referred to Jim’s third almanac when recounting the role Dwight Whiting played in Orange County’s "Great Ostrich Boom." But given that we've recently cleared Halloween and now are headed into an earlier-than-usual Thanksgiving, I consider it kismet that yours truly has come upon some Sleeper-provided tidbits devoted solely to Orange County’s popcorn crop.
Yes, initially I too thought popcorn seemed an unlikely topic for this column.
But then I began thinking back to those Halloweens of my childhood. Before the serious trick-or-treating, we always stopped by my maternal grandmother’s home in what is now Old Towne Orange. Then after she’d admired my costume, Grandmother would present me with two or three of her legendary homemade popcorn balls.
Alas, they looked like gooey Styrofoam and probably tasted like it too. Except my mom—always thinking of possible dental complications—cued me to politely thank Grandmother and tell her I’d look forward to enjoying them as after-school treats.
A day or so later, the sticky globs quietly went into the trash.
Instead my mom frequently indulged in what she said was another family tradition: that of serving popcorn in place of Sunday supper. On those evenings we’d take turns moving a large covered skillet back and forth on one of our stove's burners until the fluffy white pieces began to lift the skillet’s lid. Then, taking our bowls into the living room along with a plate of freshly pared apples, my mom and I, and maybe my dad, would sit down to watch Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
So when I came upon almanac No. 1's Agricultural Oddities and Bumper Crops section, stating that "a favorite early Sunday evening supper was a bowl of popcorn with cream and fresh fruit," I definitely sat up and took notice.
POP IF YOU’RE POLISH Jim follows this early Orange County menu report with a quick agricultural factoid: "The earliest popcorn statistics are from 1887, when 168 sacks were raised."
And then, an additional revelation: "On her ranch in Santiago Canyon, actress Helena Modjeska raised popcorn in 1905, which she described to a Polish friend as "a kind of corn that jumps up when you roast it, and after roasting it tastes like wadding.'"
All of this prompted me to look up the history of popcorn.
In elementary school I’d been told that the first Thanksgiving was supplemented with several Native American contributions and that popcorn was among them. Now all the bits and pieces of information were coming together!
During the Great Depression—when my mom's parents often struggled to feed their three children on unpredictable citrus ranching income—the crunchy, high-fiber foodstuff would have nicely substituted for an occasional meal, just as my online research indicated.
I also learned that in more recent decades, some DIY folks have gone back to planting and enjoying their own homegrown popcorn.
According to the Jim Sleeper entry, in fact, the kitchen gardens of many pioneer families—including those living in and around El Toro—would've been likely to include four or five rows of popcorn-producing maize. Which is where Modjeska and her agriculturally minded husband, Count Carol Bozenta, may very well have gotten the idea.
If only one of us could've been on hand to pass them the butter and salt!