With a Momo, a Magic Bowl, and a Whirly Pop: Never, Ever, Quit

We were dead in the water.

Not actual water, just the figurative kind. You know, like screwed, Feeeped, up Sheep’s creek with no Feeeeep’n paddle.

The popcorn machine was broken. It died a quarter of the way through our record goal of 200 bags of popcorn. We still had over 150 bags to pop, mix, and fill and the machine was dead, caput. 

The next day was the annual Cinco de Mayo festival in St. Paul, on the West Side, our neighborhood. It’s one of the biggest in the country, thousands upon thousands of attendees, and we were dead in the water.

It was to be the opening day of the second season of Payshee’s Popcorn. We had a primo spot, in the parking lot of Wabasha Brewing, our neighborhood brewery. It was a sweet gig, especially since the entire event had been moved several blocks to just outside the door of the brewery. Beer, popcorn, and tacos: does it really get any better than that? 

And since it was the first year in the new location, and we were inside the brewery’s parking lot, the event allowed us and a few other vendors, off the hook for the vendor fee—about $450 for the day. The brewery wasn’t even charging us to be there! So we planned to make and take more popcorn than we’d ever attempted before: 200 bags, all pre-mixed, and pre- bagged. 

Why we were popping it ahead of time in our kitchen is another part of the story, which I’ll tell later, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that we were working under the Minnesota Department of Ag’s Cottage Food Law, which meant we could pop it in our home kitchen, but had to prepackage it before selling it.

The day started, as many days do, a bit of a cluster-Feeep. Payshee had forgotten how low we were on coconut oil, so she had to run out to Costco to get more and ended up shopping for other stuff. So I started the job alone. At the time, we were popping all of our corn in a counter-top machine with a 16 oz kettle—more than twice the size of most home models—but nothing compared to our 160 quart kettle corn machine we recently purchased. 

I cranked up the machine, dropped some coconut oil into it, some corn, and I was off to the races. My goal was to make a dent in those 200 bags before Paysh got home. And I was rockin’ and rollin’ for a couple hours. By the time she returned, I had already popped and bagged my way through a quarter of our goal, nearly 50 bags. I was a feeling proud of myself, and I imagined we’d knock the rest out in slightly longer than short order.

Payshee took over the popping and I assumed my usual position: Magic Bowl Tosser. In those days, I tossed the popcorn in our old, yellow, plastic bowl with the flavorings (Easy Cheesy au Gratin, West Side Taco, Cha Cha Churro, Herby Flurby…) and then dumped it into re-lock bags which I then slipped into a white paper bag, which we then stapled shut. It was quite the process, but we had mostly mastered it the year before, during our first season.

Payshee loaded the machine for another batch of corn and flipped the switch. A couple minutes later, the pressure in the room dropped into the basement along with my stomach. The corn wasn’t popping. The little stir thingy was going round and round, but there was no sound of popping corn, not even one kernel. 

And the machine had been running steady for a couple hours. It wasn’t the first batch of the day, which sometimes takes a little longer, the machine needing to warm up. But the machine was hot, or so it should have been. But it wasn’t. Paysh could actually put her fingers on the outside of the kettle: only warm.

Panic quickly raced through the room.

My mind was awash with dread. What the hell are we gonna do? I thought, and said. Payshee ran to her laptop in the office and began to look for a solution while I cursed and spat, and stomped around the kitchen as if my remonstrations would fix the machine without touching it. The machine just stared back at me, and scoffed. We are so Feeeeped! Was all I could think. Our entire season is sunk! My mind was spinning out of control.

“Can we rent one?” I yelled into the office.

“I don’t know!” she yelled back at me. To say we’d lost our composure would be an understatement. We were headed for a complete meltdown. She typed away at the keyboard. I flipped the switches on the machine, on, off, on, off.


Somewhere in my mind, my survival instincts kicked in enough to sit my ass down in my office chair and click away at my own laptop. I found a company that rented popcorn machines. I dialed the number—actually I just tapped the digital buttons on my iPhone. Does anyone under 50 even remember dials? But their machine was less than half the capacity of our own, would cost us nearly $100—there go the profits—and would probably waste a couple hours just to go get it, set it up and get it going.

“Damn it!” I cursed. I said a few other words, too. Living with me is akin to living on a wharf, with the stevedores and sailors. I’m not apologizing; I’m just stating a fact. My head was about to explode.

“We’re screwed!” I cursed some more. The fear of failure hit me. There’s nothing we can do!, I thought. And then something in me snapped, or clicked. It made some kind of breaking sound, sort of like the crushing of a tin can (another old person reference). Then my mend was clear. To hell with that! I thought. My mama didn’t raise no quitter! There, in that moment, my mind stopped racing. I clenched my jaw. My nostrils flared.

I sprang up out of my office chair and turned to Paysh. “We’re not giving up this easily.” I marched into the kitchen, opened up the cabinet over the counter and yanked out our Relief Pitcher: our trusty old, Whirly Pop popper. You know, the old fashioned popcorn popper with the lid and the handle with the spinner thingy on it. I’d bought it for Paysh a couple years before to replace the old stock pot she used to use. We’d had two of them, but had given one away to my daughter for Christmas the year before. We kept one of them, just in case…

I dropped the thing onto the stovetop, turned to Payshee and said, “Start poppin’ mama! There’s no Fleepin way we’re quitting. If it takes all night, we’re gonna pop the rest of these bags.”

And she dove in like an ole pro. Oil, corn, fire, spin, pop, dump. Oil, corn, fire, spin, pop, dump, repeat. I mixed and bagged and stapled and piled them up in our red buckets. Repeat. We went like that for about thirty minutes. I could barely keep up. Payshe dumped the corn into the now defunct popcorn machine—the heat lamp and sifter base were still useful—and I sprayed oil, measured out cheese flavorings, tossed it in the ‘Magic Bowl’—a cheap, plastic bowl that we’d been using for years (still do for some things), then dumped it into another bag. Back then, we mixed each bag, individually. That’s all the volume the Magic Bowl could handle, about a gallon of popcorn at a time. For more than two years, that’s how we made every bag. One. At. A. Time.

We were rocking and rollin’ but I was growing tired at this point. All the mixing and bagging was a ton of work. What we really needed was our Bag Lady.

“I wish Momo was here,” Payshee said. At this point, she was covered in coconut oil. She was slipping and sliding on it in the floor, along with crushed popcorn. Bubble, our dog—who has since passed—did her best to clean up the mess, but she was old and lazy, and there was too much popcorn, even for a dog to eat. 

Momo? You ask. Oh yeah. Momo is a friend of ours, a young Hmong girl—okay, woman. I’m old, and she’s young. Twenty something. She lived with us the year before and helped us start Payshee’s Popcorn. Her real name is Monzong, but since she’s changed her name so many times since, these days we just call her The Soap Artist formerly known as Momo—she makes soap when she’s not bagging popcorn. She probably needs a symbol, like Prince had, when he wasn’t Prince, before he was Prince, again.

Momo quickly became an expert at bagging the corn. I gave her the title of Bag Lady, which sounded a bit too much like a homeless person, so we promoted her to Vice President of Packaging, which sounded very fancy. 

“Yeah, I wish she were here, too!” I said. 

Secretly, I had called Momo, earlier in the morning, while Payshee was shopping, because I knew we could use the help. But I hadn’t told Paysh, because Momo wasn’t a hundred percent sure she could make it, and if she did, I wanted it to be a surprise. And it was. No sooner had we mentioned her name—and I’m not exaggerating—I heard a knock at the door. Payshee didn’t even hear it. She was head down in popcorn popping. 

I turned to see Momo standing at the front door and motioned for her to come in.

I rushed to pick her up and squeeze her in a massive bear hug. She’s only like four feet tall or something, so I picked her up and hugged her as Payshee turned to see what was going on.

“Momo!” Paysh screamed. She dumped a pot of corn into the Magic Bowl, dropped the Whirly Pop on the stove and I passed our Bag Lady—VP of Packaging—to her for another hug. I don’t think the girl-woman’s feet actually touched the ground between us. Momo giggled—she does a lot of that—and then turned, grabbed a paper popcorn bag from the kitchen table and held it open for me to fill. She really is the best VP of Packaging one could have, because she’s so short. This means she holds the bag at just the right height for me to slip the re-lock into it. It’s all very efficient.

Before the day was over, Payshee, and Momo—who stepped in to spell her occasionally—had popped over 100 bags worth of corn, on the stovetop, in a Whirly Pop. When we were finished, we had filled 155 bags of Payshee’s Popcorn! Short of our original goal—we actually ran out of a couple seasonings—but still a hell of a lot of popcorn. One bag at a time. 

The next day, at Cinco de Mayo, we sold 119 of those bags, which was for us, a record day. Most of the rest we sold over the next couple days to our email list and Facebook fanatics.

We had crushed Failure. 

Why? Simply because we refused to quit.

No matter how long we continue on this popcorn journey, we will always look back to that day, our worst day, as our best day. Because the difference between a worst day, and a best day, has nothing to do whatsoever with what happens TO YOU

It has only to do with how you respond. Will you quit? Will you roll over? Will you die? Or will you spit in Fear’s eye, call your Momo, grab your Magic Bowl, fire up your Whirly Pop, and get your ass to poppin’?