In the epic quest to find the perfect snack, New Yorkers may want to take a turn into Brooklyn to buy a bag of BjornQorn, a bold popcorn looking not only to become your go-to nosh but maybe even to save the world.
Former freshman dorm-mates at Bard College, Bjorn Quenemoen and Jamie O’Shea combined Bjorn’s corn-farmer roots and Jamie’s solar technology to cook up a healthy, low-emission, high-flavor snack. BjornQorn is made with organic corn, popped in a solar kettle, and flavored with nutritional yeast — an ingredient not well known in the world at large but a favorite seasoning among vegetarians and vegans for its cheesy, nutty flavor and high protein and vitamin levels.
We caught up with Quenemoen and O’Shea to talk popcorn, love at first sight, and the “dirt cheap kits” they’re developing to bring their solar-cooking technology to places like Senegal and India.
Can you explain the process of making the BjornQorn, from the kernel to the store?
We watch the forecast for clear days and then head out to our facility at Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson. We swing our kettle in and out of the solar basin every five to seven minutes as the sun tracks across the sky. Once it’s too low, we stop. Then we season the popcorn with my family-farm recipe, bag it up, put it in inventory, and fill store and online requests. We generally deliver on cloudy and/or rainy days.
You mean in the summer, right? What months are you doing this?
Year round: The sun shines all year! But we make less per day in the winter due to shorter days.
Do you remember when you met? Was it love at first sight?
Quenemoen: I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but I was intrigued by his long, blond Fabio hair.
O’Shea: Bjorn was well known for his popcorn even in our freshman dorm. He’d wear these ridiculous orange Thai pants, put on calypso music, and pop all evening. I’ve been thinking about growing that Fabio hair back recently.
Bjorn, you’re a corn farmer’s son. What was it like growing up on a corn farm, and did you always plan to go into the family business?
Growing up on a corn farm was like growing up by a sea you can’t swim in. Flat dirt roads are not conducive to skateboarding or biking, so it was hard to get away. But I did develop an affinity for digging. Luckily or not, I get to stoke that affinity every time we construct one of our giant solar basins. (Thanks, Jamie.) My parents always said, “Kids that work on the farm have missing limbs,” so they steered me clear of the equipment during my upbringing. I turned to music in high school through college and into my twenties but found myself searching for creative ways to reconnect to the land back in Minnesota. Now I go back in the fall to help my father with the harvest and I get to drive all the crazy machinery.
Jamie, how and why did you develop your solar popping technique?
I came to BjornQorn with an inexpensive method of building big, curved mirrors which focus sunlight to create high temperatures. So I needed to find something to heat with this invention. I knew Bjorn was getting ready to start a popcorn business, and I convinced him it would be nifty to heat his popcorn kettles using sunlight. As it turns out it, it not only made great popcorn, it added a special quality we couldn’t achieve otherwise. Really, I lucked into a promising design, using materials and techniques I was working with as an artist. A big but simple problem with the solar industry is the expense of mirrors, but our mirror basin is very affordable. We plan to take it all over the world for lots of different uses. Solar cooking requires no fuel and produces no emissions.
Tell me about that addictive flavor.
You can thank the yeast for that. It’s a cultish flavoring with deeply committed fans. Its robust nutritional profile results in what I like to call a happy post-Qorn glow. Not many snacks can do that. Like anything, though, you have to source high-quality and fresh ingredients or you’re going to end up with bland flavor and less nutrients. The sunlight also imparts a very even heat onto our cooking surface, so our kernels end up crispier.
You guys are developing “dirt cheap kits” that could produce the same kind of heat as range-top stoves. What more can you tell me about the project?
These kits are a smaller version of the mirror basin that BjornQorn uses, and they can be constructed by hand in under a day, with less than $20 in materials. We hope to bring them places where energy is scarce. We’re talking with groups in Senegal and India now. There are lots of solar cooking projects out there, but ours is the only one that is both dirt cheap and powerful. You could use them to fry, boil, roast, pasteurize water, or, of course, pop popcorn. We’re especially excited to work with other small food businesses abroad.
Can you please explain this speed-movie-watching hobby? How long does it take to watch a full-length film? Do you make up the stories? What is your favorite movie to speed-watch?
Quenemoen: I have been known to speed watch sub-marginal films. You don’t get any audio at that rate, but you do get to create and argue about what the plot might be, and it only takes about a half-hour. I recently watched the Antarctic thriller White Out at about 4x-to-8x speed. I have no idea what actually happened in that one particularly. And it’s a great way to enjoy BjornQorn, of course.