Popcorn: Ingrained in America’s Agricultural History | Special …
Everyone seems to love popcorn. It has become a mainstay at movie theaters, sporting events, amusement parks, and nearly everywhere else people gather. Although Americans are now such avid consumers of popcorn, and its agricultural history is long, its commercial history is comparatively short. Popcorn was not mentioned in early farm papers and seed trade catalogs until around 1880, but once the American public discovered it, popcorn’s popularity quickly grew.
Nearly all of the world’s popcorn production is in the United States, with 25 states growing the crop. Over one fourth of the national production is in Nebraska, and Indiana produces only slightly less. Other major popcorn-producing states are Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri.
Scholars agree that corn, and popcorn, originated in the Americas. Precisely how it originated, however, is a topic of debate. It is believed by many experts that corn was developed by centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses like teosinte. There has also been much speculation about how popcorn may have been prepared or used by the native Americans, fueled by findings of popcorn in archeological digs. According to the Popcorn Board:
The oldest known corn pollen is scarcely distinguishable from modern corn pollen, judging by an 80,000-year-old fossil found 200 feet below Mexico City.
European explorers throughout the Americas were introduced to, and intrigued by, popcorn. Around the year 1612, early French explorers through the Great Lakes region noted that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things. Writing of Peruvian Indians, Bernab Cobo, a missionary in Peru between 1609 and 1629, remarked that they toasted “a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.”
The new settlers embraced popcorn. Colonial families sometimes ate popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast. Some colonists popped corn using poppers consisting of a cylinder of thin sheet-iron that revolved on an axle in front of the fireplace like a squirrel cage. Popcorn was still very much a small, home-grown crop.
Popcorn really caught on during the 1890s and was very popular even through the Great Depression. Street vendors, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers, used to follow wherever a crowd might be. They were a common sight at fairs, parks, and expositions, and restaurants also began to sell this fluffy snack. During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries struggling families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.
During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops, which left little excess for making candy. Thanks to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual. Popcorn sales dropped during the late 1940s, however, when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters declined and, with it, popcorn consumption. The Popcorn Institute (a trade association of popcorn processors), began a campaign to convince consumers that popcorn was as good to eat while at home watching television as it was at the movies. A successful popcorn advertising partnership with Coca-Cola and Morton Salt, along with advertisements of individual popcorn companies’ made the early 1950s the largest home-consumption growth period for the popcorn industry. In the 1980s, the popcorn industry saw another growth spurt with microwave popcorn. Americans today consume 17.3 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 68 quarts.
Choosing the right time to harvest popcorn is tricky. It is best to delay harvesting until the corn has cured on the stalk as much as possible, but not so long that it is damaged by fall moisture or by corn stalks falling over. For decades, popcorn has been picked almost exclusively by machines.
Once picked, the corn must be dried until it reaches its optimum moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. Proper air circulation in the crib is essential for drying and for prevention of mold and other harmful pests. Through the years, there have been many variations on storing and drying popcorn for future use, from natural air drying to artificial drying with heat, and large-scale crib drying by commercial processors to small-scale drying in wire cloth bags by families for home use.
After the corn has been dried, it is transported to a processing plant where the kernels are shelled from the cob and move through several screens and separators to remove any damaged kernels or debris. Then the kernels are sent through polishing machines to rub off any chaff that may still be clinging to them. After processing, popcorn is packaged in containers. For wholesale use, the kernels are packaged in large bags of 25-, 50-, or 100-pound sizes. Meanwhile, for retail sale, smaller jars, bags or metal containers are used. Microwave popcorn has led to the creation of even more types of packaging.
The folklore of some Native American tribes told of spirits who lived inside each kernel of popcorn. The spirits were quiet and content to live on their own, but grew angry if their houses were heated. The hotter their homes became, the angrier they would become, shaking the kernels until the heat was too much. Finally, they would burst out of their homes and into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.
A kernel of popcorn does contain a small amount of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. This is why popcorn needs to maintain a certain level of moisture. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water expands, building pressure against the hard starch surface. Eventually, this outer layer gives way, causing the popcorn to explode. As it explodes, the soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and bursts, turning the kernel inside out. The steam inside the kernel is released, and the popcorn is popped, hot and ready to eat. Salt, butter, and cream and sugar are optional.