Some dads consider themselves the king of the grill. Armed with their tongs, apron, and basting brush, they take over the patio to fire up the grill and set about the serious business of grilling steaks, burgers and brats. My dad isn't one of these guys. In fact, I think I've seen my dad grill something twice. It's not that he can't grill. I think it's more that he doesn't want to.
Dad's not interested in doing anything outdoors in the summertime that doesn't involve short pencils, sunshine, and a seven iron. In the cooler months, dad heads to the kitchen, but not for the same reasons other men might don an apron. While some men might enjoy sauteing and braising, my dad makes caramel corn.
For as long as I can remember, dad has made his caramel corn in our kitchen. It's a complete and total takeover. He moves in like a swat team of one, clearing the counter tops, setting up his Air-pop (which is on its ninth life, I'm sure of it), gathers his paper grocery bags (they're the key to kernel-free caramel corn), large stock pot and mixing bowl. When dad hits the kitchen for caramel corn production, my mom makes herself scarce. As kids, we'd clear out too, except to sneak a peak at the slowly cooking caramel syrup and the cold water test to see if the syrup had come to "soft ball" stage. The syrup testing meant that warm, gooey caramel corn would soon be ready, so it was a good idea to stick close by when the syrup hit the water.
While we waited, dad would put us to work, opening up the paper grocery bags, filling them with the newly popped corn, and then shaking the dickens out of the bags until all of the kernels settled on the bottom. He's a real stickler for kernel-free corn, so it's not uncommon for him to micro-manage the bag-shaking to see that it's up to standard. Once the popped corn is de-kerneled, it's time to scoop it out and into the large mixing bowl, where he then pours his hot caramel concoction over the top and stirs it quickly together with a wooden spoon.
It's a little strange that I do not know the recipe, and it isn't written down anywhere that I know of. I've never asked for it, but I probably should. He makes it all from memory, and he doesn't measure ANYTHING. There are no measuring cups or spoons, only the basic materials he needs to create the caramel goodness that everyone counts on from Halloween through New Year's Day. Caramel corn has always been "dad's thing", and asking for the recipe seems as forward as asking him how much money he made last year. It just seems rude.
Now that dad's in his later years, I think he might be ready to share the recipe. He'll also have to share his technique with me because the way he makes caramel is, to me, an unheard of methodology that I've never tried. His methods are unconventional at best. As a professionally trained pastry chef, it boggles my mind that his quick and aggressive mixing methods work with such a temperamental pastry application.
The cool thing about my dad is that he's not a rule-follower. My dad isn't concerned with rules or regulations, textbooks or teachers. He never wanted us to be lazy or unprepared for life. He wanted us to get an education, but his focus wasn't on our grades. I've been hearing him say, all my life, "A students work for C students". It's sassy and irreverent, but, hell, most of the time it's true- at least where entrepreneurs are concerned.
Dad's an entrepreneur and encouraged all of us to become entrepreneurs too. "You want to own your own monopoly set, kids". The message was loud and clear. Dad wanted us to be independent. He wanted us to create our own destiny.
Nothing was handed to my dad. He likes to say that when he grew up, his folks weren't poor, they were"just broke". I'm sure it was a lot tougher than dad lets on, usually, most everything is. What I've always known about my dad was that he wasn't going to wait around for someone to open the doors or clear the path for him. Dad left home and blazed the trail completely alone.
I always knew that I'd one day own my own businesses. Dad always says, "what's in the dog is in the pup". I've always used my dad as my professional measuring stick, and there are times when I've felt that I didn't or wouldn't ever catch up to the level of success he's realized in his career. The pressure I feel there is a comparison I've created for myself. He's never made me feel like I could be anything less than a roaring success.
Just last night while we celebrated Father's Day, dad told me that he always believed he would succeed, "I never thought I could fail", he said. Somehow, I know he feels the same way about me.
Stacy Sloan; Chef & Founder of Three Little Birds