Who does not love the sound and smell of popping corn? Popcorn is one of the first foods I learned to make on my own. And my first tries were not exactly successful. Of course, this was before the advent of microwave popcorn. I was undeterred and eventually was shaking a potful of corn kernels that became buttery popcorn.
Since today is National Popcorn Day, I pondered on the history of popcorn, so I did some research on one of the most popular snacks. It turns out that popcorn has been around for a long time. Archaeologists have found 8,000-year-old pollen below Mexico City which is almost identical to modern popcorn pollen. Corn probably grew widely in the Americas, but it can also be found in China and other areas of Asia.
The oldest specimen was found in the “Bat Cave” in central New Mexico, dated to about 5,600-years-old. Kernels of popcorn were so found in ancient tombs in Peru. They were so well preserved that they can still pop. And in Utah, researchers found fresh-looking 1,000-year-old popcorn. Holly Hartman writes: “Popcorn was probably an important part of life in the ancient Americas. On a 1,700-year-old painted funeral urn found in Mexico, a corn god is shown wearing a headdress of popcorn.”
French explorers wrote of Iroquois popping corn in pottery jars filled with sand. Another common way to eat popcorn at that time was to hold an oiled ear on a stick over the fire, then chew the popped kernels of it. Natives throughout the Americas also made a popcorn beer, and some made popcorn soup. Colonial housewives served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast. By the mid-1800s, popcorn became a beloved snack by families. Colonists ate popcorn as a snack and made it with a small amount of molasses, making something similar to kettle corn.
According to the History Channel, mass consumption began after a Chicago entrepreneur, Charles Cretor, built the first popcorn-popping machine. In 1885, he built the machine and by 1900, he introduced a horse-drawn popcorn wagon and the era of popcorn eaters began. Popcorn owes it popularity to movie theaters. The History Kitchen says during the Depression, popcorn is one of the few snacks that people could still afford, and hawkers saw this as an opportunity to make money. In 1938, Glen W. Dickson, the owner of several theaters in the Midwest began installing popcorn machines in the lobbies of his theaters.
Today most Americans get their popcorn from a microwave. The first patent for a microwave popcorn bag was issued to General Mills in 1981 and home popcorn consumption increased by tens of thousands of pounds. Americans eat about a million pounds worth of unpopped popcorn a year or approximately 17 billion quarts of popped corn per year. I’m ashamed to admit that I can eat an entire bag of popcorn if I don’t restrain myself.
Have you noticed that popcorn comes in two shapes? One is the butterfly or snowflake which is light and airy. Another is dome or mushroom shaped and this is dense and chewy. The butterfly is preferred by movie theaters because they make bigger kernels. But I once saw on TV a popcorn maker who prefers the mushroom shape because he likes the more uniform shape for his candied product. Plus, they are sturdier for shipping.
Popcorn is a huge industry. Just think of all the varied and crazy flavors available in the market. There’s ketchup, gin and tonic, soy sauce, bacon caramel, even a pregnancy mix (ice cream and dill pickle!). And there’s so much more. These “designer” flavors can usually be ordered online. Check out these following lists to find a mind-blowing flavor:
Recently I’ve discovered air-popped Pink Himalayan Salt and Pepper Popcorn. It’s delicious! But I love any kind of popcorn. I even love receiving those ubiquitous popcorn tins at Christmas. Popcorn is one of those foods that trigger fond memories for me. I remember men riding bikes with enormous plastic bags of popcorn and they would sell them by the cupful. There’s also the man who goes around the neighborhood with a pushcart and “buys” our empty bottles and we get paid with popcorn. But my favorite memory is the popcorn cart outside the church. The popcorn comes in assorted colors (from the sugar used) and stuffed into thin wax bags. I couldn’t pass that cart without begging my mom for a bag.
How about you? What’s your favorite flavor? What memories do you associate with popcorn? Whatever it is, I hope you get a chance to enjoy some popcorn today!