Nearly everyone likes popcorn. Not to is almost un-American; popcorn is like apple pie. Imagine a movie theater or late night TV without it.

There is really nothing like the smell of it popping . . . ummm, the eyes close and all the senses dance in anticipation. Even better than the smell is the taste of well-buttered, salty popcorn.

Recently, I was in the supermarket innocently ticking off items on the shopping list when suddenly popcorn popped up. Popcorn!

Well, look at this, right there on the popcorn shelf is a brand-new popping corn named "Merry Poppin'" in a cute little red, white and blue box. And what a boasty little box -- "new Super Gold 40, finest popcorn grown" it yells.

Sitting next to Merry Poppin', and I mean right next to her, wearing a smug, unworried look on his bespectacled face is Orville Redenbacher. Not a hair on his wavy, center-parted hairdo is out of place; Orville is confident unruffled.

On the back of Orville's jar is printed, "Why my gourmet popping corn is the finest in the world." It's the title to a long, windy note from the popcorn prince that terminates with his pitch: "Please try my GOURMET popping corn. You'll like it better, or my name isn't Orville Redenbacker." pBelow that, his signature; this guy means business.

On the back of her box, someone (Merry, perhaps?) explains in a sort of-scientific style why Merry Poppin' is "the finest popping corn yet developed."

In an uncontrollable popcorn frenzy (aided by a powerful touch of ambivalence) I screamed, "Damm the extravagance!" and snatched Merry and Orville from the shelf, paid dearly for them and headed determinedly out the door with visions of a heavyweight popcorn shootout popping about my reeling brain.

Speeding back to my stove it occurred to me that this would be an excellent opportunity to find out if there are any significant differences between brands of popcorn. I made two supermarket stops along the way and ended up with what various clerks, checkout personnel and aficionados assured me were the seven finest brands of popping corn: Fame, Col-R-Corn, Wyandot, Jolly Time, Super Pop and of course, Merry Poppin' and Orville Redenbacher. I organized a six-person team of what James Beard, food critic and gourmet extraodinaire, calls "good palates." In this case, they are also made popcorn freaks. The team was composed of an equal number of men and women ranging in age from 25 to 35.

It was agreed I would not participate in the tests, that the popcorn would be slated but not buttered, and that only I would know the identities of the corns involved.

The first question tackled was packaging.

Orville Redenbacher is the undisputed champion in this category with his resealable glass jar. Popcorn purists sprinkle a few drops of water in the jar and store in the refrigerator. All popping corn should be stored this way.

Next, unpopped kernels were looked at.

Redenbacher encourages no competition; kernels have a consistency of shape, a plumpness really, that is a delight to the eye. It's a big, lusty round kernel with a deep orange luminescent sheen reminiscent of a pearl. The kernel drops suddenly into a small, sabre shape point the color of a golden palomino. Very luscious!

Then we got down to business.

Using a two-quart covered pot on an electric range set at medium-high, I cooked equal amounts of each popping corn with a precision and attention to the popping instructions on each container that would have made NASA envious of my skills. The palates became as contemplative, communicative and critical as a team of neurosurgeons during microsurgery.This was serious popcorn tasting by intelligent adults who like their popcorn.

I watched silently . . . and took detailed notes. I was pleased.

After an entire afternoon of tasting and discussion, the palates divided the popcorn into two categories: That worth eating and the rest.

Still in the Pop-Off were Orville Redenbacher, Merry Poppin' and Super Pop (red label).

Popcorn economics were discussed.

Orville Redenbacher was the most expensive, but it yields the highest percentage of popped kernels -- more than 99 percent of Orville's kernels pop.

Merry Poppin' is the second most expensive of the seven tested but its pop rate is high, averaging 96 percent.

Super Pop has a pop rate compartable to Merry Poppin', but it is by far the least expensive of all tested.

The palates voted to take a well-deserved break at this point, having been at it for hours. They dental flossed their teeth and rinsed their mouths with water. We all did 15 minutes of calisthenics and then returned to the task.

The next comparsion was a trick I played on the palates to determine if the manufacturers' instructions for popping were the best. With each brand I cooked two pots of popcorn; one by the recommended method and the other by a method I call ultra-slow pop.

I asked the palates to tell me which they preferred and why. I did not tell them they were eating two versions of the same corn.

All the palates chose the ultra-slow method of each brand, and they did so every time.

As a college student years ago I discovered ultra-slow pop will make average popping corn good and good popping corn great.

Popping methods recommended by manufacturers make the kernels huge, fluffy and light. They are aerated and voluminous, and dramatically blow lids off pots in TV commercials. They also ment in the mouth . . . and clog the molars! Uncooked hulls separate from the popped corn and stick between the gums and teeth. One either deftly wields a toothpick or discretely jams a fingernail at the offending paste.

Ultra-slow pop makes smaller, heartier, crunchier and infinitely darker-hulled popcorn. The kernels explode evenly and the hulls remain an integral part of the popcorn. Molar clog is nonexistent and nothing sticks between gums and teeth.

Ultra-slow is a painstaking, time-consuming method, but truly, it's the best.

The comparsion of Merry Poppin', Super Pop and Orville Redenbacher resumed and continued on and off for a week. Each brand was cooked individually, two at a time and three at a time, never in the same order. The palates never knew which brand they were tasting.

My stack of notes grew into a mountain of notes.

The palates' popcorn awareness waxed . . . but their enthusiasm never waned.

They were amazed by differences, both great and small.

In fairness it must be said that all three finalists - Merry Poppin', Super Pop and Orville Redenbacher - make very good popcorn . . . and share similarities. The differences among them were subtle, but critical.

The conclusion, after exhaustive testing and discussion, was that all three are fairly equal in every way but flavor, so it came down to more testing, testing exclusively for flavor, to determine the best of the three.

Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of Great Popping Corn Pop-Off of 1980 . . . the most fabulous taste-bud twanging popcorn in the entire universe is . . .Super Pop!

Nuttiness. That is the adjective the palates chose that best distinguishes Super Pop from the others. Super Pop won because it makes a crunchy popcorn with a hearty, robust consistency and a wonderful nut-like flavor.

Well, Orville, going back to the quote on the back of your bottle, the one that goes, "You'll like it (Orville's popcorn) better, or my name isn't Orville Redenbacher" just what, we ask with popcorn on our breath, is your name?

Note: Orville Redenbacher is available in many stores; Merry Poppin' in K-Mart and Acme Super Savers. Super Pop is not sold in Washington . . . yet. For popcorn freaks it can be purchased by mail by the case which contains 12 two pound bags. To order send $11 to National Oats Co., 1515 H Ave., NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402. Ultra-Slow Pop

For ultra-slow pop, begin with a cold cooking pot and cover, a wire coat hanger and a cold stove. Cover the bottom of the pot with a thick film (not excessive puddle) of oil and add a layer and a half of popping corn to the bottom of the pot.

Place the coat hanger between the covered pot and the burner and adjust the heat to medium-high. As the oil begins heating swirl the pot around every 10 seconds or so until you no longer hear any loose kernels banging into the side of the pot. This indicates each kernel is coated with oil and will not burn.

The idea of the coat-hanger is to keep the pot away from direct heat. As soon as the first kernel pops, remove the pot from the burner for a full minute. Swirl the pot a few times during this period and then replace it on the burner, making sure the coat-hanger is still in place.

When the next kernel pops, lift the pot from the burner and swirl it around some more. The idea of ultra-slow pop is to cook (fry) the kernels for as long as possible before allowing them to pop. Popping should be actively delayed. If done correctly, 12 to 15 minutes will be required to pop the amount described above.

The pot should spend as much time off the burner as it does on, and it should be kept in constant motion. When swirling the pot, do so just above the burner to get the advantage of heat, but not too much heat.

Dump the popped corn into a brown paper bag, salt to taste, and shake the bag vigorously. The bag is important because it absorbs any excess oil.

Transfer the popcorn to a bowl and pour on the butter!

No matter what brand of popping corn is used, ultra-slow will make it tastier.