Popcorn is good, but corn puffs are great. Both of them are made by doing something magical to corn kernels, but popcorn is a messy expression of that magic, leaving behind husks and debris all over your teeth and gums, not to mention the unpopped kernels that rattle around in the bag, and occasionally make their way into your mouth where your teeth make surprised and painful contact with them.
Corn puffs on the other hand, taste great, don’t leave behind any residue in your teeth and gums, and have an even airier mouthfeel than popcorn. I personally like to let a corn puff sit in my mouth until it half-melts into a creamier version of its former self. Give it a try some time, there may be a delightful side to corn puffs that you haven’t discovered yet!
Speaking of discovering, how were corn puffs discovered? Who is the great inventor we should be showering with eternal thanks for inventing this delicious snack? Was it one of Thomas Alva Edison’s two thousand inventions? Did Ben Franklin discover it when a lightning bolt hit his corn on the cob? Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone just so that he could ring the general store and ask them to bring over more maize as he labored over the challenge of creating a puffy corn snack that wouldn’t get stuck in his teeth like popcorn?
To learn the true story of corn puffs (and their better dressed cousins, cheese curls), we need to head over to the small city of Beloit, WI, and zip back in time to the mid 1930’s. Beloit’s largest employer was an animal feed producer named Flakall. They got their name because they had invented a process for making flaky animal feed, which evidently was much better for the animals, and was far more economical than the standard animal feed of the time.
Wisconsin and the surrounding Midwest states produced a lot of corn. They still do. Some of it was sold to be eaten fresh on the cob, some of it was turned in to grits for our Southern brothers, and some was sold to corn meal producers who enabled people to make corncakes, cornbread, corn fritters, cornmush, corndogs, and if you were Mexican inspired, tortillas.
Farmers in Wisconsin had another use for the plentiful resource, they used it to feed their animals. Wisconsin being the cheese capital of America (think Cheesehead Green Bay Packer fans), massive quantities of corn was bought cheaply, and fed to the millions of cows in Wisconsin. So in a sense, you could say that corn was also being turned into milk and cheese, which is pretty superfly! Try doing that at home!
There was one problem with the whole corn and cow party, it turns out that Betsy doesn’t like getting corn husks stuck in her teeth either! In addition, cows often didn’t digest the corn well, which led to massive waste of corn feed. Enter Flakall, Beloit’s favorite company. They invented a grinder that turned the hard corn kernels into superthin flakes. The flakes were very easily digestable, no husks would get caught in cow’s teeth and start rotting them (cows are notoriously bad at flossing), and flaky corn feed could be kept in sacks in dry storage for many months without spoiling.
The grinder did this by forcing corn into an extruder, a machine that is basically a massive screw with the space between the threads getting thinner and thinner, until the only thing that can make its way out is a tiny thin flake. The Flakall grinder, patent filed in 1932, worked pretty well and soon Flakall was doing a brisk business supplying the local farmers with the corn flakes. But the grinder wasn’t perfect, and would often clog up. Cleaning it would require workers to break down the whole machine, clean out the parts and then put it back together again. The workers tried many alternative methods of cleaning the grinder, and soon found that the most successful method was to feed some moistened corn into the grinder, where the moisture would clean out the inside of the grinder.
But them something A-maize-ing happened. As the grinder whirred away at many hundreds of RPM’s, it would become extremely hot from all the friction, and then the moisture in the wet corn would boil and turn into steam. And since the moisture was in the corn flakes, it wouldn’t only expand itself, as soon as it came out of the machine, it would puff up the corn and turn it into a puff ball. The puffy corn was thrown out as a necessary byproduct of the grinder cleaning process. But one day, Edward Wilson, a curious employee, took a bunch of it home, threw some salt and pepper on it, and fed it to his kids. The kids loved it, “Dad,” they said, “Once you pop, you can’t stop!”
Edward told his friends at the factory about his discovery and soon everyone at the factory was snacking on corn puffs, spicing them with various spices, eventually with cheese, making the first ever cheese curls. The Flakall company discovered that people loved this clean and delicious alternative to popcorn, and eventually stopped producing animal feed and became a full-time snack producer; you could charge a lot more for a few ounces of delicious snack than you could charge for a few ounces of animal feed!
Today, the cheese curls market is astonishingly huge, with Cheetos, the largest manufacturer of cheese curls ringing up over $4 Billion a year in worldwide sales! Cheetos are sold in 36 countries, and while the base is always a corn puff, the spices and dressings used vary from country to country. Cheetos are not kosher in the US, but they are in Israel where you can buy over twenty different varieties of Cheetos.
Just when you thought I was done, and you thought it was time for me to start extruding the corn puff into an inspirational message, I’m gonna serve you up one last delicious nugget of useless wisdom. For some reason, Israelis never quite took to the cheese topping on the corn puffs. Try smelling a bag of cheese curls and you may understand why; the smell can only be described as eau de artificiale! In 1964, a young entrepreneurial Israeli decided to experiment with a different coating, peanut butter, and Bamba was born! Yes, Bamba is a cheese curl minus the cheese and plus peanut butter.
Israelis take enormous pride in Bamba, and some even call it the unofficial food of Israel (hummous, schwarma, pita, and all the other foods we typically associate with Israel are actually Middle Eastern foods, eaten in Arab countries for centuries before migrating to Israel with the Sephardic Aliya in the late 40’s)! It is such a common food in Israel that the whole country has extraordinary low rates of peanut allergies due to most Israelis being introduced to peanuts in the first year of their life in the form of Bamba. Bamba is also known for its calming properties; whenever any of my babies would start crying while I was in Israel, I would just sit them down in a high chair and feed them Bamba (let the dirty diaper wait!), and they magically would calm down!
Edward Wilson, humble factory worker for the Flakall company in Beloit, is the inventor of the the corn puff, and the grandfather of the $4 Billion Cheetos empire, as well as the great grandfather of our very beloved Bamba. He can claim partial credit for making peanut allergies almost nonexistent for the 6 million Jews living in Israel. Not bad for a dude making animal feed in Wisconsin.
The story is great, but what’s the deeper message here?
There’s always a message.
We live in a time of financial uncertainty. We all see tuitions rising, food costs going up, inflation at 40 year highs. My healthcare costs just went up by 22%, and they were already sky high! At times, we can become paralyzed by a sense of fear, how will we ever be able to afford to marry off our children? How will we finish the month in positive territory? How will we be able to provide for our children the lifestyle they deserve?
However, in Judaism we have a tool called Bitachon, a firm belief that Ha-shem will send us exactly what we need, when we need it. Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pachuda, the 11th Century scholar, philosopher, and commentator, in his masterpiece The Duties of the Heart lists the benefits of a person who arms himself with Bitachon. The first and foremost of those benefits is that person who arms himself with Bitachon will be able to free himself from the stress and anxiety that plagues society. If G-d could give humans the ingenuity to turn the gunk used in cleaning out of an animal feed grinder into a four billion dollar, peanut allergy fighting product, He can certainly figure out a way to help me pay my health insurance bill.
This does not mean that the person who has faith will be showered with buckets of cash (because that is what I need to pay me health insurance bill), it just means that the person knows that he is not being forgotten or passed over by G-d, and that he has in his bank account exactly what he’s supposed to have. If G-d wants any of us to be super wealthy, he has four billion ways to make us rich, and I know you’re thinking of the lottery, but G-d can be much more creative than that as shown by the corn puff phenomenon.
We don’t need to cheat on our taxes, we don’t need to try to sell our car for more than it’s worth, we don’t need to stress out. G-d has our back, and as soon as we are worthy, he can turn on one of infinite spigots and let the green come flowing down on us. The list of ridiculous or accidental things that netted millions is endless. Someone made: $15 million in six months selling pet rocks, $200 million selling the snuggie (a blanket with sleeves), $50 million licensing the yellow smiley face he trademarked, and while that person was not us, it could have just as easily been.
Every dollar bill contains a powerful message, “In G-d we trust.” For once we have to believe in the message not the messenger.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot, Avraham’s nephew is saved from the devastationby an angel. Although Lot’s salvation can be most closely linked to his relationship to Avraham, Rashi tells us that he too had a merit that made him worthy of being saved. When Avraham went down to Egypt, he told the customs officer that his wife Sara was his sister, out of fear that if the Egyptians knew he was the husband of this beautiful woman, they might kill him in order to take his wife as a concubine for the Pharaoh. Lot was there, and he could’ve told the customs officer the truth, and probably he would have been rewarded handsomely, but he didn’t. In this merit he was saved from the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But this seems strange because we see Lot doing deeds that seem to be far more difficult. When two angels came to Sodom, he invited them in and gave them a place to sleep and eat, even though he knew that this would enrage the people of Sodom to the point where they might try to kill him. When they actually came and demanded that he send out the two guests, he went out and defended the guests at the risk of his life. That being the case, why wasn’t Lot saved in merit of these action, which seem to indicate a much higher level of sacrifice, than the fact that he didn’t divulge information that could have caused his uncle to be killed?
The Sages tell us that the reward someone gets is not determined by how great the action seems to be objectively, but by the level of difficulty the action presents to a particular person. One person may find it very easy to keep kosher, but finds if very challenging to get out of bed and go to morning services. Another person may have an easy time going to morning services, but finds keeping kosher to be grueling. Each person will be rewarded based on the extent to which they overcame that which they personally found to be challenging, not based upon an objective measure of the difficulty of the actions they performed.
Lot grew up in the house of Avraham, and therefore, inviting in guests was not something he found difficult, au contraire he found it quite rewarding. Kindness came easily to Lot, and, therefore, it would not earn him a “get out of Sodom free” card. His challenge was his attraction to money, which had been his primary reason for moving to Sodom, a place that had great farmland and pastures. For him, to refrain from “ratting” on Avraham, an act which could have made him wealthy, was enormously difficult, and therefore, in the merit of that action he deserved to be saved!
Often we take a specific mitzvah that is very difficult for us, and we negate its value by saying, “Oh, it’s only a small mitzvah!” But the truth is that if that mitzvah is a challenge for us, then it is not a small mitzvah, it might be our biggest mitzvah! Because G-d isn’t looking for big displays or large actions, G-d is looking for big hearts, and large self-sacrifice.
Our parsha begins with G-d coming to visit Avraham as he recuperates from his bris. This teaches us the importance of visiting the sick – if G-d took the time to do it, we should definitely do it as well. As G-d is talking with him, Avraham sees three angels disguised as Arab travelers passing before his tent. He asks G-d to wait until he finishes doing the mitzvah of hachnassasorchim, inviting guest to one’s home, and he goes out to ask the travelers to join him for a meal. As he serves them a meal fit for a king (I would say a meal fit for an angel, but angels don’t eat), they reveal themselves as angels, and one of them tells them that in exactly one year Sara will give birth.
After they leave, G-d picks up the conversation again by mentioning to Avraham that he is about to destroy the five cities of Sodom, Gomorrahet. al. Avraham, being the true patriarch of all humanity, prays to G-d on their behalf. Acting as a defense attorney, he pleads with G-d to spare the cities based on the good people within them but, lo and behold, G-d informs him that there are no such people, and that is the exact reason that the cities need to be destroyed.
Two of the angels journey on to Sodom. (Each of the three angels had a job, as angels receive only one task at a time.The first one, whose job it was to inform Avraham and Sara of their upcoming baby, had completed his job and left. The remaining two angels continue to Sodom, one of them to destroy the city, and the other to save Lot.) When they get there, Lot, Avraham’s nephew, invites them into his house, something that was sure to anger the citizens of Sodom, who were notoriously cruel to any visitors or to anyone who was kind to visitors. Sure enough, the entire population of Sodom gathers around Lot’s house that night to wreak havoc on him and his guests. The angels blind the people, and tell Lot that it was time to hightail it out of Sodom, before the upheaval. Lot leaves reluctantly, not wanting to lose his material possessions, and eventually is practically dragged out.
The angels instruct Lot and his family (one wife, two daughters) not to look back, as they don’t deserve to watch the destruction of people who were not much worse than they. Lot’s wife ignores the instruction and does look back and turns into a pillar of salt (my mother has a picture of a pillar of dusty, salty stone that is in the form of a woman, which she saw on one of her trips to Israel. Its proximity to Sodom has caused people to theorize that this might be Lot’s wife). Lot, after begging G-d to let him remain in a city nearby, a wish which G-d grants, decides to run off to the mountains in fear of even this city getting destroyed (Lot wasn’t the biggest of believers).
In the mountain cave, Lot’s two daughters discuss their predicament. Fearing that the entire world had been wiped out as it had been in the Great Flood, they thought they were the only survivors on earth. The problem, one that hasn’t ceased since then, was that there was a real big lack of eligible guys for them to marry. Not wanting to be the last humans, they get their father drunk on two consecutive nights, and sleep with him. They both have children and those two children became the father of the nations of Ammon and Moav. (You will see more about these nations in Numbers and Deuteronomy.)
At this point there is another famine in Israel, and Avraham moves to Gerar to escape the famine. History repeats itself, and in order to avoid the murder of Avraham, the couple claim that Sara is his sister. Sure enough, she is taken to the house of the king Avimelech. An angel keeps Avimelech away from Sara, while the entire kingdom is struck with the inability to expel anything from the body (including urination, bowel movements, giving birth etc.). G-d reprimands Avimelech who claims complete innocence. G-d commands him to immediately return Sara to her husband, and to ask Avraham to pray on their behalf. This is what happens, and life returns to normal in Gerar.
After this story, Sara becomes pregnant and gives birth. They give Isaac a bris on his eighth day, and also make a big party for him on the day he is weaned. Sara notices that Ishmael is trying to kill and/or corrupt Isaac, so she demands that Avraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Avraham is reluctant, but G-d tells her, “Whatever Sara tells you, heed her voice.” (My wife, who is also named Sara, finds this to be her favorite line from G-d!)
Hagar and Ishmael are sent away with some food and water, but they soon find themselves lost in the desert with the water depleted, and Ishmael falls ill. Hagar, being the cruel mother she was (see last week’s email for more details), doesn’t stay with her son through his sickness, but simply leaves him under a tree saying that she can’t bear to see him die (since when is it all about you, Mrs. Hagar?). An angel appears to her and tells her that even though a lot of evil would come out of Ishmael’s descendants, G-d only judges people based on their current status and, therefore, Ishmael is deserving of being saved. The angel shows Hagar a well, and she nurses her son back to health. (This portion of the Torah is read on Rosh Hashanah to remind us that G-d only judges people based on the way they are at the moment, so any time a person makes a real honest commitment to change, they can get back in the good books.)
The last portion of this Parsha is the final test Avraham underwent, one that involved testing his son as well. This is sort of the moment where the reins were passed on to the next generation, as it is the final test of Avraham, and the one of the first for Isaac. G-d commands Avraham to sacrifice his most beloved son, Isaac. This is the most difficult test possible for Avraham whose whole life revolved around kindness but, even so, he gets up early the next morning to fulfill G-d’s wishes. Isaac, even after being told the purpose of the journey they are taking, willingly goes along. As a matter of fact, the reason this event is known as Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, is because Isaac requested of his father that he bind him tightly so that he shouldn’t shake at the sight of the knife and make the sacrifice imperfect.
Before Avraham even has the chance to harm his son, an angel calls out to him and tells him to stay still. The angel goes on to explain that the event was really a test to see how faithful a follower of G-d Avraham was. Avrahom, in his deep desire to bring a sacrifice to his Creator looked around for an appropriate substitute and found a ram that G-d had prepared from the sixth day of creation especially for this purpose. (In commemoration of this act, we use a ram’s horn for the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. It so to speak reminds G-d of the sacrifice our forefathers had, and hopefully serves as a merit for us to get a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah.) This is one of the most action packed Parshas in the whole Torah, and if you are still reading by now, please email me, so I can gauge how many people made it this far. Congratulations.
Quote of the Week: One who forecasts all perils will never sail the seas. ~ Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Singapore is the only city in the world that has a zoo that is open 24 hours a day!
Funny Line of the Week: I think they named the orange before the carrot.
Have an Electrifying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham