Molly Yeh is the star of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm, a cooking show based in the Midwest. On a recent episode of said show, she made a savory salad with popcorn, and the entire internet is freaking out about it. Once again, I find myself saddened and disappointed by the People of the Internet. Why are you accepting what “The Man” says you can or cannot put into salads? When you spend your Sundays flipping out over this sort of stuff on Twitter, you’re doing exactly what The Man wants you to do: shooting down any deviation from the norm.
Now, before you head straight down to the comments section to voice your furious opinions on a salad you’ve never tasted, take a few moments to review the facts.
If Yeh put regular old kernel corn in this salad, nobody would be blinking an eye, and kernel corn is way more flavorful than popcorn, which, let’s be real, barely has any flavor. That’s why people coat their popcorn in things like butter, salt, cheddar cheese powder, caramel, chocolate, candy, etc. etc. etc. It’s not inherently sweet or savory, because it’s plain-ass corn, just like the cornmeal we turn into cornbread and muffins, and the stoneground grits that are as good with butter and sugar as they are with shrimp and cheese. (In fact, you can make a killer shrimp and grits using popcorn in only 15 minutes. Popcorn is much more respectful of your time than sluggish, fussy grits have ever been.)
The reason we eat popcorn at the movies instead of buckets of creamed corn is the texture, which makes it highly snackable. It’s the same reason we love tortilla chips, another crunchy corn-based snack that we use in all manner of savory applications, from crumbling into casseroles to simmering in salsa to make chilaquiles. There’s also cornflakes, which have long been used as a coating for quasi-healthy oven fried chicken, and decisively unhealthy deep fried chicken tenders. Hell, even chicken coated with Cap’n Crunch is commonly accepted. Cap’n. Goddamn. Crunch. And yet America thinks popcorn is a bridge too far?
Yes, the popcorn will get slightly soggy. So do croutons in green salad and the bread in panzanella salad. If we didn’t like making crunchy things soft we wouldn’t pour milk on our cereal, spend our Sunday mornings making French toast, or participate in thrilling discussions about stuffing every November.
I grew up always viewing Midwestern food as a foreign perversion of cuisine where something containing mini marshmallows or suspended in Jell-O could be considered “salad.” It took being blinded by love and marrying into a family of Iowans to at last open my eyes: the word “salad” is a broad term that can refer to anything made from a hodgepodge of ingredients and served either cold or at room temperature. It’s a different vernacular for an entire category of food, and I didn’t speak the language.
It’s easy to hate on Midwestern salads because the term applies to a broad spectrum of dishes, and just like any other genre of cuisine, there are bound to be plenty of losers amidst the winners. But this vastness makes the salad world practically infinite in its potential. Tangy coleslaw tossed with toasty almonds, sweet Mandarin oranges, and crunchy crumbled ramen noodles? Salad. Cool Whip, pretzels, and strawberry Jell-O? Salad. Everything is allowed to be salad! The genre has already hit rock bottom (check out the photos in this bad boy), so no matter what crazy concoctions your brain decides to try, you can never be the worst. Of course popcorn belongs in a salad, especially one that’s being featured on a TV show about Midwestern cuisine that’s hosted by someone who’s from the Midwest. Because anything you dream can become salad, and Molly Yeh understands that.
That 15-minute shrimp and grits recipe I mentioned earlier came from EL Ideas, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. Eleven Madison Park, which was named the World’s Best Restaurant in 2017, has served popcorn with seared tuna, and the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten has paired popcorn with sea bass. No one batted an eye over any of this, nor did tens of thousands of people had any issues about dropping a few hundred bucks to eat it.
Instead of being outraged over salad because Twitter told us to be, we should be praising Molly Yeh’s popcorn salad for what it represents: imagination, and a bit of courage. This salad doesn’t need to answer to anyone; it only needs to be true to itself, and to taste good. I haven’t made it yet, but I intend to. Because who knows what culinary wonders we miss out on by being judgy on Twitter?