Cat Cora

Photo: Cora von Zumwalt

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When I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, there was always that time between 5 and 6 in the evening when my two brothers and I would storm the house, famished from school and sports and wanting to eat right now. My mom would be at the stove, and the smell of browning onions or searing chicken would only make us hungrier. My grandmother, who lived with us, came up with the idea of turning that restless interlude into family happy hour. We're Greek, so she'd put out Kalamata olives and nuts, along with Feta cheese or sharp Cheddar and crackers. Then she and my mom would pour themselves a glass of wine, my dad would pop open a beer, and we kids would get juice or milk in grown-up glasses. We'd all sit together in the kitchen and talk about what had happened at school or work that day. The ritual allowed my mom a few extra minutes to finish cooking dinner. And it taught me that happy hour doesn't have to involve prowling around bars and drinking 100-proof rum—it can be just as fun to gather as a family.

Over the years, I've kept up the tradition—with some tweaks. When my wife, Jennifer, and I were first married, we'd do tastings of different wines, slice a pear or two, turn on some romantic music. Now we have four boys, so it's a lot more chaotic—doors slamming, kids pushing each other to get to the food. But we still embrace it. Can I make fancy hors d'oeuvres? Yes, some mini chicken empanadas or hamachi tartare would be no problem. But lately, my kids' favorite happy hour snack is popcorn. I've found it's a surefire way to get them into the kitchen, since they're mesmerized by the sound of it popping. Often we make kettle corn on the stove, with just oil, salt, and a few spoonfuls of sugar at the end. But sometimes I'll improvise and add, say, a sprinkle of curry powder to vanilla caramel popcorn. Or I'll make "pizza" popcorn—which is a lot healthier than actual pizza—using Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and tons of oregano. Popcorn is easy that way. Just walk into the pantry and ask yourself, "What do I need to use up?"

When the last kernel's popped, I give each of the kids his own bowl; when they're done and say they want more, dinner's ready. They get milk or iced water in their favorite Elvis glasses, and Jennifer and I open a bottle of Cabernet. We don't have happy hour every night, but we try to do it several times a week because we're teaching our boys to enjoy being together—and that shouldn't happen just on weekends. Nothing about it is stressful or a lot of work: After all, there's a reason we call it happy hour.

Next: Cat Cora's popcorn recipes