The meaning of popcorn and cupcakes

The email is totally out of the blue. It’s from former Advertiser reporter Kawehi Haug, who’s moved on to a new gig baking cupcakes:

Hi Mari,

Let Them Eat Cupcakes is assembling a small group of taste testers to taste our cupcakes, and then give us honest, constructive feedback on the cakes and their presentation.

Here’s how it will work:
1. We will bake two varieties of cupcakes each week for you to taste for the next month.
2. We will deliver them to you every Friday…

I email back immediately:

this is a joke, right? (no caps, too time-consuming) sounds too good to be true, like those emails that promise me an ipad. let me know if this is a joke.


So you get an idea of my state of mind when last Friday afternoon, a car rolls into my quiet cul-de-sac (or dead end, as we call them in Liliha) and, standing in my own front yard, I get handed two gourmet cupcakes.

Sometimes life feels utterly strange. It feels like a bizarro universe when I, a foodie who can daydream about favorite cupcakes, have only to stand in my yard on a Friday afternoon and hold out my hands for cupcakes to appear.

I can’t even begin to figure out the meaning of this. Good karmic payback? Modern-day manna? The universe getting a kick out of the happily bewildered?

The next day the universe kicks it up a notch. I’ve been calling friends, looking for someone with clean, photogenic counter tops so I can taste-test and photograph Nonstop’s popcorn topping ideas.

Everyone’s perplexed at my insistence that we can’t use microwave popcorn. I mean, I guess it’s OK to try some toppings on pre-salted, pre-flavored microwave popcorn, but to gauge true results across a broader flavor mix, we’ll really need to pop corn.

At this point everyone asks the same thing: How do you pop corn? *sigh* Never mind, I say. Just get out a big pot with a lid. I’ll bring the oil and popcorn.

My friend Lissa agrees. After a Saturday morning meeting with a business colleague, we drive to her house in Hawaii Kai. Lissa feeds me lunch of sushi she’s picked up on the way. We’re both so famished we’re sinking over the food in physical joy.

Abruptly Lissa points at me with a natto sushi.

‘I was going to ask you,’ she says, ‘I went power-shopping last night and I found a popcorn maker. I was like wow, this would be a super-cool gift for my father-in-law! But then I come home and Dan’s like, Don’t give that to Dad, he eats way too much popcorn already.

‘So I have this popcorn maker and I was wondering, do you want to use it to make popcorn today?’

Oh universe, thank you. I mean Lissa, thank you. No burning the corn, no messing up the stove, no washing the pot after every batch. Perfect popcorn every time.

We clean up and start popping our way through a dozen batches, Lissa in a good mood despite having to start baking oatmeal cookies and grilling kalbi for a party in a few hours. (I know, she’s a saint.)

I’m in a reflective mood. In between melting butters, chopping chocolate, throwing in assorted nuts and sprinkling on pesto powder and furikake and Hidden Valley ranch, my mind is on another friend I’ve just seen, who’s struggling through the pain of letting go a parent she can’t bear to lose. I’m trying to reconcile how the same universe that’s given me a giddy Saturday can create such a painful one for her.

I almost feel bad for celebrating cupcakes and popcorn. But I’ve been through a similar agony watching my mom’s slow death from cancer. I can see now that the universe gives us joy and unbearable pain, in big and little doses, at different times in life, and that when it seems that suffering can get no greater or inane joys more inane, they still do. And we still wake up the next day and the next, only now the indelible memory of pain makes even the little joys that come afterward that much sweeter.

I wish I could do more to help. I hope my quirky little stories offer some bright distraction. I hope they offer a bit of context. I hope they offer some hope for later.

Maybe that’s the point of cupcakes and popcorn.