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Free Bar Popcorn Has Saved Us All

In "My Obsession," writers take a single object in a bar and explore its significance. This month: Amanda Mull on what dipping into the free snack supply at her old college bar taught her about feeling at home—in public.

Sticking around Athens for an extra two years after graduating from the University of Georgia made perfect sense. It’s hard to beat an inexpensive town full of young, attractive people when you’re in your early 20s without any job prospects.

I spent much of that time at Boar’s Head Lounge. I wouldn’t have called it my favorite bar, or even argued that it was particularly good, but I wasn’t really looking for quality back then. Bars as a concept were still novel to me, and the crowded spot that today promises “The best Head in town” on its Twitter page, was cheap and frequented by people I loved.

That, and there was always free popcorn.

Boar’s Head may have been the type of middle-of-the-road crowd pleaser familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in an American college town, but it was my nighttime living room, a place populated by my friends and coworkers from my after-school job selling flip phones and CDs at Best Buy. It was the first bar that ever felt like mine—and, despite it being free for all, the popcorn from the machine felt like mine, too. That’s why, after too many drinks, I occasionally stuck my hand directly in it. We all did.

The machine itself was the standard kind you often see in places where a lot of popcorn needs to be served. They always have red metal bases with clear acrylic swinging doors and a plastic scoop so people can access the popcorn in a sanitary manner. The machine at Boar’s Head, however, didn’t have one of those.

The whereabouts of the scoop was anybody’s guess. My theory is that the machine probably started out with one, before a drunk student stole it in order to proudly display it in their dorm room. Maybe the bar replaced it, and then the same thing happened over and over until they finally gave up. In its place, Boar’s Head usually supplied disposable plastic cups that were meant to act as both scoop and receptacle. It was widely interpreted as a suggestion.

Everybody ate the popcorn, and not just at the beginning of the night. A trip to the machine meant that the evening had turned the corner. Usually, when people talk about alcohol’s ability to decrease inhibitions, they’re talking about having bad sex or doing bad drugs or sending a bad text message you shouldn’t have. But at Boar’s Head, the best clue that things were starting to go sideways was your sudden appearance by a friend’s side, clutching a misbegotten fistful of popcorn. A former employee of the bar told me that patrons, once they were good and drunk, frequently took matters into their own hands and tried to make more popcorn themselves with the supplies they found under the machine, reliably spreading oil all over the surrounding area.

I don’t remember the first time I had the Boar’s Head popcorn, but I will never forget the nights it salvaged—and the sense of community it engendered. If a good neighborhood bar is supposed to feel like a third space between the extremes of being out in the world and the comfort of being in your own home, sticking a hand directly into a communal vat of popcorn blurred those boundaries for me. It made me feel as though being at home in public, and in the world, was possible.

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Amanda Mull is a journalist and critic whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Eater, Racked and Glamour. She's from Georgia but lives in Brooklyn, where she shares an apartment with a little monster named Midge, who is a rescue chihuahua.