We’ve all missed going to the movies during the pandemic. But watching movies at home — tons of them — has helped get us through this thing. One very important part of the movie theater experience that you can’t get at home, though, is the specific delight that is movie-theater-style popcorn. (Yes, you can make popcorn at home, but in no way is it the same. In. No. Way.) Seattle Times film critic Moira Macdonald and food critic Bethany Jean Clement both love movie theater popcorn in an extreme way — so much so that the latter set out on a quest to re-create it at home, without any fancy theater-style popcorn machine or other special equipment. The recipe at which she arrived is simple and, yes, chemical. The results … well, Bethany delivered all the ingredients to Moira, plus a specially paired bottle of sparkling rosé and a fancy frozen pizza (yes, she is that good a friend!), and they made popcorn together over FaceTime. Moira chose the most popcorn movie ever. And just like that, Dinner at a Movie was back.

The miracle of movie-theater-style popcorn at home

Popcorn kernels are poured into the pan to be mixed with Flavacol and At The Movies Popcorn Butter Flavored Popcorn Topping (which has a very long name with “Popcorn” in it twice). (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Bethany: Hearing Moira scream “IT SMELLS LIKE THE MOVIES! IT’S A MIRACLE!” stands as one of the happiest moments of my pandemic life — maybe my entire life. 

Moira: I think this is the first time, in our long and lovely Dinner at a Movie partnership, that I have genuinely screamed in joy. (Or screamed for any reason.) Bethany is a genius. 

Bethany: Determination! Experimentation! Devotion! Making and eating a metric ton of popcorn — eight iterations using different oils and proportions, some of it tasting pretty weird — and never getting even close to sick of it! If this is genius, well … 

Miss movie popcorn during the pandemic? Our food critic figured out how to make it exactly right at home

Moira: For the record, the day after our Dinner at a Movie: Popcorn Edition evening, I made Bethany’s popcorn again for lunch. I may eat it every day from now on. The hell with Proust and his madeleines; for me, the pleasantly stinging taste of excess salt and weird yellow chemicals brings memories and joy.

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Bethany: That you made The Popcorn again already — I am moved. Dear readers, as a professional film critic, Moira has eaten more movie-theater-style popcorn than actual God. Her stamp of approval on my/the-miracle-of-modern-food-science’s recipe — this, to me, has great weight, great meaning.

Moira: I honestly didn’t think it could be done. I am, of course, no stranger to popcorn at home, with an air popper and a bit of butter. It’s very good, but it doesn’t taste like the real stuff. The trick — and you can read it in detail in Bethany’s recipe — is two key ingredients, both of them scarily yellow/orange-colored and filled with butter-adjacent chemicals: a salty powder called Flavacol and an oil. This whole endeavor really felt like a Secret Undercover Investigation, with Bethany sending over mysterious ingredients and, ultimately, the two of us on FaceTime on a dark December evening, carefully measuring out Flavacol together. 

Bethany: Waiting in our separate kitchens, virtually linked, for that first kernel to pop — what a moment! “DO YOU HAVE SIZZLING?” we screamed at each other. “MINE IS POPPING!” (The method for The Popcorn gets a bit loud.) 

Moira: Bethany’s popped first! Mine joined in shortly thereafter! We both freaked out, like we’d never seen popcorn before! 

You, too, can now reproduce perfect movie-theater-style popcorn at home. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times )

Bethany: My joy in hearing you full-mouth mumble, “I’m just standing here shoveling it into my face!” may only be surpassed by the joy in sharing this absurd greatness with all the movie-theater-popcorn-deprived out there, possibly making the pandemic infinitesimally more bearable.

Moira: Let’s be clear: The absolute best way to enjoy movie popcorn is at a movie theater, sitting in the dark gazing up at an enormous screen, and when the movies can safely return — oh, please, let it be soon — I will scatter my carton of Flavacol (yes, it comes in cartons, like milk; everything about this is weird) to the winds. But for now, how lovely to get a little bit of the movie theater experience at home. 

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Bethany: Someday, dear friend — maybe even in this brave new year! — we’ll sit side by side in the theater again, sharing popcorn and whatever dinner-style comestibles are on offer. Meanwhile, at least we can get better wine — and better pizza! — than the stuff that the theaters serve.  

The Sparkling Pink Wine

Bethany: What is the best wine pairing for popcorn?

Moira: Diet Coke.

Bethany: Like that, except pink and bubbly and, you know, wine — like the sparkling rosé selected just for us and our popcorn miracle by the very kind Anaïs Custer of lovely La Dive, a natural wine bar and restaurant on Capitol Hill that I had the great pleasure of reviewing when restaurants (and restaurant reviews) were still a thing this past February, approximately 117 years ago. But La Dive has bravely carried on, functioning as a wine shop, to-go spot (see “The Pizza” below) and vino-educational hotline. 

Moira: I loved that you asked an actual expert what would go well with yellow-chemical popcorn. I wish I’d been there to hear the request. It is true, and I will hear no arguments, that nothing goes with popcorn as well as Diet Coke, but the sparkling pink wine was both pretty and nicely tart. 

Bethany: It’s the special 2020 Pét-Nat Rosé ($28/bottle at La Dive) from Gilbert Cellars — a small family winery out in Yakima that I’m now excited to visit someday — and it’s a gorgeous velvety springtime blush color.  

Moira: I could spill it on my pink couch and do no harm! 

Bethany: Convenient! And the pairing was perfection — a grapefruitiness that cut cleanly and refreshingly through the fake-buttery-saltiness, making one’s mouth ideally ready for more, more, MORE popcorn. Would you say that we each ate the equivalent of a movie theater large bag?

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Moira: A large bag; maybe not a large tub. Those things are big enough to swim in. 

The Pizza

One of La Dive’s pepperoni pizzas — they come frozen, they make great movie-time snacking and they’re most fun served party-cut. (Bethany Jean Clement / The Seattle Times)

Bethany: For pandemic times, La Dive is making frozen pepperoni pies ($12, 10-inch). Chef David Gurewitz says the style is based on the Midwestern tavern-style pizza he grew up with, meaning a thin but not floppy crust, a modicum of sauce and a just-right amount of cheese. Each pepperoni becomes a little shiny-grease-filled cup (and yay for that!). It’s a pleasantly basic pie, meant for snacking — a lot like what you’d get at a movie theater, except actually good. Remember that truly abysmal pizza we had at Pacific Place when they claimed to have introduced a real dinner menu? 

Moira: I do remember, sadly. That pizza tasted, in retrospect, like 2020. The La Dive pizza was, in contrast, delightful, but putting it right on the oven rack, as instructed, is a little scary. I ended up folding mine — pizza origami! — in my efforts to get it out. Clearly, I should not be trusted to cook anything while in a popcorn-induced euphoria.

Bethany: A couple more minutes would’ve made it less foldy — I wish I’d been there to help!

The Movie

In this film publicity image released by Universal Pictures, Vin Diesel, left, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are shown in a scene from “Fast Five.” (The Associated Press)

Moira: I was a little anxious at the prospect of choosing a movie for this noble experiment. What, I wondered, is a popcorn movie? Is it a movie that’s entirely light, like a rom-com? Is it a movie that’s loud, so you can hear it over the crunching? Is it a movie that’s fast and zippy and full of action, in such a way that it doesn’t matter very much whether you’re following the plot (or if there’s even a plot to follow)? A popcorn movie can be all of these things, but I narrowed in on one trait in particular: It needed to have The Rock in it. Because The Rock, like popcorn, is perfect.

Bethany: I possessed very little knowledge of The Rock’s multifarious charms and enormous biceps prior to when we saw “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” at the iPic in Redmond for a Dinner at a Movie excursion back in 1782, I mean, 2017. I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude for bringing The Rock into my life — and now, too, for the gift of the most actiony action film franchise ever, for I’d never seen anything “Fast & Furious” before. 

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Moira: “Fast Five” is better known as “That One ‘Fast & Furious’ Movie Where They Steal Cars From a Speeding Train,” and it is classic and ridiculous and so of course I chose it. We watched, settled on our respective couches with popcorn and not-very-interested cats, all the while texting and giggling. 

Bethany: You wondered at the outset whether I needed the backstory of the 117 previous movie-masterworks in the series. “HAHAHAHAHAHA,” I texted, for as a bus full of prisoners rolled over at high speed before the opening credits, it was already gloriously crystal clear that this is the kind of stupefying joy-film that you just let wash over you.

Moira: Like I remembered the backstory anyway. 

Bethany: Who knew that this level of action could be so relaxing? Who knew that this level of action existed?! It’s oddly ideal pandemic viewing — I haven’t seen this much happen ever, but especially in the last 10 months.

Moira: Watching this movie reminded me of seeing the various “Fast & Furious” movies at screenings, then heading home trying to resist the temptation to drive like Vin Diesel. But yes, there’s something deeply relaxing about watching a bunch of extremely fit people race around and steal things (including a safe even bigger than The Rock) and jump from rooftops and make random pronouncements, while you sit comfortably, pondering that second glass of wine. 

Bethany: I feel I can tell you now that when I initially saw that this movie clocked in at 131 minutes, I had some pretty severe misgivings. 

Moira: These movies are called “Fast” for a reason! They go fast, like those cars!

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Bethany: I never really understood why we were in Rio de Janeiro, but excellent scenery, so why the hell not! And the vague interplay between The Rock and that other slightly less enormous man, as well as the generally wooden work of the tough/gruff ensemble cast — as you noted, these films are not known for their great performances, and sometimes that’s a sheer relief.

Moira: Someday, my friend, you and I will sit in a bar and I will tell you all my favorite moments in this franchise, including the one where The Rock removes a cast from his arm simply by flexing his muscles. (Can Meryl Streep do that? I think not!) Until then — well, we’ll always have popcorn.

The SHEER JOY of it all

Bethany: And now we’ll always have movie-theater-style popcorn whenever we want it, pandemic be damned to hell. I’m not going to say that The Popcorn, better wine, better pizza, being able to text you all throughout the film and the company of cats makes home viewing anywhere close to superior to going to the movies, but it really, really helps.

Moira: It does, and while I can’t wait to safely return to movie theaters again, I so appreciate this miracle that you have wrought. Watching “together” isn’t the same as watching together, but if this past year has taught us anything, it’s to cherish time with our friends — with popcorn, whenever possible. How lucky am I to have a friend like Bethany? Here’s hoping some of you might be inspired to make popcorn and watch a silly movie “together” — and that it’s not too long before we can truly gather again.   

Bethany: If you’d told me that someday we’d make popcorn together-apart and watch an absurd two-plus-hour, multivehicle chase scene and this would really, truly light up my life … well, in context, it does feel miraculous. Thank you for being my friend, Moira. And thank you, Flavacol, whatever you are!

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