I’m back. And I brought snacks. With the Oscars right around the corner, it’s time to elevate the lowly popcorn to its 15 minutes of fame.

But first a story.

Once upon a time there was a young woman who strayed dangerously close to a cult called “The Foodies.” As everyone knows, this fickle group is known for yammering incessantly about the distinctions of truffle oils and Himalayan rock salts.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, she followed the 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not eat Atlantic farm-raised salmon”) and knew how to order a proper skinny latte, if not drink one. Soon she believed, as the foodies intimated, the secret to good food was its exclusivity.

Then a funny thing happened. She stumbled upon a group that treated cooking like literacy, not a highbrow hobby but a basic and crucial education for all. She found she could care deeply about good food, but connect with her community.

The hero of this story is Cooking Matters, a cooking based education program that teaches participants how to prepare healthy, tasty meals on a limited budget. As in $10 for a meal to feed a family of four. The program started in 1993 with two chefs in Washington, D.C., and has since spread to 26 locations across the United States—including East Palo Alto.

Each class includes a chef (no Culinary Institute of America credentials required), nutritionist, and classroom helper, a role I’ve served with relish for several class cycles. Some classes are taught in English, some in Spanish. Some are adults-only, some kids-only, and others teach moms and their children how to cook side-by-side.

For diehard fans of the high-energy Brit chef Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution reality TV series, the class format will sound familiar. That’s no accident. Cooking Matters, originally called Operation Frontline, partnered with the first season of the television show as Jamie tried to overhaul school lunch programs and eating habits in the hilly Appalachians of Huntington, West Virginia—then the most obese city in the nation.

The driving point: our nation’s children are the first generation expected to live a shorter lifespan than their parents. Jamie argues the inability to cook wholesome meals, a life skill that seems to have skipped generations, is deeply intertwined with this health crisis.

The situation in the Hispanic community in East Palo Alto is somewhat different, but no less critical.

For the most part, the women I have met know how to cook already—they can dice an onion and shred a cabbage faster than I can recite the Spanish alphabet. For them, the course is really an education in how to navigate the dizzyingly broken U.S. food system.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Mexican-Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with type II diabetes, and they are 50 percent more likely to die from the disease.1 Why is that? The women’s answers were enlightening. In Mexico, they walked more. They drank fresh fruit licuados (smoothies) from roadside stands rather than soda. Fresh produce can be expensive here, and fast food only too accessible. With diabetes, a genetic predisposition may also come into play.

Lesson on fat in fast food

There is no quick fix, but the nutrition lessons taught in Cooking Matters are fundamentally important: sugar, fats, whole grains, and reading nutrition labels. If you’ve been schooled in the Whole Foods Market mindset, perhaps these lessons are second nature for you (a friend’s dad: “That grocery store looks like a library. Everybody reads the boxes!”). But for me, I learn something every time. My favorite part is watching the kids eat new dishes with gusto, foods made less foreign by the fact they cooked it themselves. Even kale.

Now, quick, before I get all misty-eyed, back to the popcorn.

Incidentally, we cooked this recipe as a spicy snack in class last week. Popcorn is a whole grain after all. The Tapatío hot sauce? That was a stroke of genius from Sam, our class chef and bilingual translator. “Every Mexican kid knows how to do this.” Genial.

Spiced Popcorn with Hot Sauce

Adapted from Rachel Ray

10 Servings

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil

1/2 cup unpopped popcorn (makes 15 cups popped)

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil on the stovetop. (Olive oil has a lower smoke-point, so it’s better to use vegetable or canola oil if you can.) Add a few kernels of popcorn. When one of them pops, add the ½ cup of popcorn and cover, shaking the pot or stirring occasionally. Listen for the sound of popping to slow considerably to know when it’s done. Remove from the heat.

In a small bowl, mix the chili powder, paprika, cayenne and salt. In an extra-large bowl, pour the popcorn and sprinkle with some of the spices. Mix with your hands; repeat until the popcorn is evenly coated. You can also add a drizzle of olive oil to help the spices stick.

Serve with generous shakes of Tapatío, Cholula, or your favorite hot sauce.

P.S., Want to light a fire in your belly? Watch Jamie Oliver’s speech at last year’s TED Conference. Gets me every time.