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I made Molly Yeh’s popcorn salad, and it’s easier to swallow than all the Internet vitriol

(Aaron Hutcherson/The Washington Post)
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Scrolling through Twitter on Sunday evening, as one is wont to do, I came across a video for popcorn salad. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Popcorn is tossed in a mayo-based dressing along with carrots, celery, sugar snap peas and other accoutrements. It gave me pause. With my eyebrows raised, I tweeted, “I have lots of questions about the popcorn salad, but the one at the forefront is: wouldn’t the mayo dressing make the popcorn soggy as it sits?” But then my mind went to all the coleslaws, egg salads, macaroni salads, potato salads, tuna salads and similar mayo-based salads I grew up eating and enjoy to this day. This time the star of the dish just happens to be popcorn, and what’s wrong with that?

While I gave the recipe and its creator the benefit of the doubt, the Internet doesn’t provide such leniency and had much harsher things to say.

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The video in question is from host Molly Yeh on her Food Network show “Girl Meets Farm,” and the episode featuring this recipe first aired April 26, 2020. Yeh, who rose to fame with her blog My Name Is Yeh, grew up in a Chicago suburb, lived in New York City for a stint to attend Juilliard and then “moved from Brooklyn to a farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, where my husband is a fifth-generation farmer,” she states on her site. The segment opens with Yeh saying she’s sharing “a riff on an iconic Midwestern dish.” As someone who spent the first 21 years of his life in the region, I’d never heard of it until this weekend.

However, Vice’s Bettina Makalintal traced down its origins. “As culinary historian Sylvia Lovegren referenced in the 2005 book ‘Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads,’ American housewives made banana and popcorn salad back in the 1920s. Their iteration involved cutting a banana in half, placing it on a lettuce leaf, and dotting it with popcorn and globs of mayo,” Makalintal wrote.

There are a handful of recipes on the Internet shared more recently, perhaps having survived in community and church cookbooks. (“Popcorn salad is one of those classic Midwestern dishes that you would often find in a church basement potluck,” Yeh said in the segment.) Yeh didn’t respond to requests for comment, but it’s clear that while popcorn salad might not be exactly iconic, she didn’t pull it out of thin air.

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And as food writer Allison Robicelli pointed out, “If this was being served at a Michelin restaurant people would say it’s genius.” In fact, popped and puffed corn and other grains have been featured in high-end dining rooms. “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,” Robicelli wrote. There are recipes for grain salad with puffed quinoa from New York City’s Betony restaurant in Bon Appétit and another featuring popped sorghum from chef Daniel Patterson in Food & Wine.

On top of that, uses for popcorn other than as a snack are common in other countries. “In Ecuador, popcorn is served along dishes like ceviche, meant to absorb the tangy cold broth. Soggy popcorn isn’t a bad thing necessarily, more cultural than anything,” one user wrote on Twitter. And puffed rice is popular in snack foods and salads in India, including bhel and jhalmuri.

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While this video also led to earnest questions about who gets to host a television show for a major network, such discourse can easily get lost or misconstrued on social media. Part of the Twitter game is to share the strongest versions of your beliefs to elicit the most engagement, with little to no room for nuance in 240 characters or less. There’s no room for subtlety in hot takes, which this discussion in particular requires. Shouldn’t we pause before calling something gross, strange or weird to consider the range of people we might other or offend?

After seeing all the debate, I wanted to know how the salad actually tastes.

Most other recipes online seem to feature mayonnaise coating a mixture of popcorn, bacon, water chestnuts, celery, carrots, chives and cheddar cheese. Yeh’s version drops the bacon, uses sugar snap peas and shallots in place of the water chestnuts and chives, opts for a sprinkle of white cheddar popcorn seasoning in lieu of the shredded cheese, and adds fresh greens.

Having actually made the recipe, I kind of liked it — at least enough to eat a bowl for lunch instead of immediately throwing it in the trash (as some reactions suggested). I couldn’t find popcorn seasoning at the store, opted for shredded cheese as the other recipes suggested, and I don’t think the cheese needed to be there. The popcorn was mostly filler, perhaps devised as an inventive, cheap way to stretch a dish in leaner times. I enjoyed the crunch from the vegetables, which provided much-needed texture as the popcorn softened in the salad dressing. Some people love that crispy-gone-soggy texture — “The texture of the popcorn in this salad is so weirdly good, I just can’t get enough of it,” Yeh said — but for those that don’t, the salad needs to be consumed almost immediately, before it starts to deteriorate.

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Would I make it again? Probably not. Would I eat it again? It wouldn't be my first choice, but I also wouldn't refuse it if I were hungry and there weren't many other options.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy toward Yeh when I saw the vitriolic response. And I ended up thinking less about popcorn salad and more about the often dog-eat-dog state of social media discourse around food. I wish people would more carefully consider their assumptions before making a value judgment — something I constantly try to remind myself of, too. The next time someone shares a recipe that doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea, maybe don’t knock it 'til you’ve tried it, or at least try to stay constructive in the public domain. That’s what I’m going to do.

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