Thursday, January 19, 2017


It’s hard to think of a more purely American food than popcorn. Whether it’s salted and buttered at a movie theatre, kettle corn at a state fair, or a caramel popcorn ball at holiday time, we devour the stuff.

But where did the concept of popped corn come from?
Corn or Maize is strictly a new world crop. It didn't exist in Europe, Africa, or the Far East.

"Smithers…I want some of this 'Popped Corn' everyone is talking about."

Well, blame the Mexicans. Maize is an indigenous crop that fueled all of the Native American cultures, Mayan, Aztec, Olmec, and Incan. This was a staple crop both for trade and for sustenance, including snacking. Which brings up popped corn. Archeologists have even found traces of popcorn in 1,000-year-old Peruvian tombs. Clearly, the ancients knew what they were doing despite the lack of a wheel.

Cut to, the first Thanksgiving feast, in Plymouth Colony in 1621. According to myth, Squanto himself taught the Pilgrims to raise and harvest corn, and pop the kernels for a delicious snack. Unfortunately, this story contains more hot air than a large bag of Jiffy Pop. While the early settlers at Plymouth did indeed grow corn, it was of the Northern Flint variety, with delicate kernels that are unsuitable for popping; roasting or boiling or animal feed were the best options for this product. 

So how did popped corn come about? Let's go back to the Native Americans, they know so much. French explorers wrote of Iroquois popping tough corn kernels in pottery jars filled with heated sand. The Iroquois nation spread throughout the Great Lakes region, so it is likely that settlers to upstate New York, Vermont and Quebec were the earliest European-American popcorn makers. By the mid 1800's, popcorn was beloved by families as a late-night snack in front of the fire, or at picnics and sociables. But mass consumption of the treat didn’t take off until the 1890's, after a Chicago entrepreneur named Charles Cretors built the first popcorn-popping machine.

Cretors was a candy-store owner who purchased a commercially made peanut roaster so he could offer freshly roasted nuts at his shop. But he was unhappy with the quality of the machine, and began tinkering with it. A few years later, Cretors had designed entirely new machines, powered by steam, for both nut roasting and popcorn popping. The steam ensured all kernels would be heated evenly, for the maximum number of popped kernels, and it also enabled users to pop the corn directly in the desired seasonings. By 1900, Cretors introduced a horse-drawn popcorn wagon, and the era of the popcorn eaters began.

Image : BSA

These days, the majority of Americans get their popcorn from a microwave, not a horse and buggy. 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 in the years following. Today, Americans eat about a million pounds worth of (unpopped) popcorn a year.

"I like My Popcorn Bags!"
Image : Jill

So, on National Popcorn Day check out all these recipes for Savory and Sweet styles of popped corn.

Here's a favorite :

 Garlic Cheddar Popcorn Balls
Image courtesy : Kirbie's Cravings

Two (2) Large Glass Mixing Bowls
A Microwave that will hold one of the bowls
A sharp Knife or Food Processor
Parchment or Wax Paper
Your Manicured Hands

  • 50 cloves fresh Garlic (Yes, you read that right)
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
  • 4 cups (900g.) shredded Cheddar Cheese
  • 5 quarts (20 cups) Popped Corn

Peel the Garlic and mince using a sharp knife or a few pulses of a food processor along with the Kosher Salt. Try not to create a pureé. This prevents sticking and absorbs all of the yummy Garlic juices.
Combine the minced Garlic/Salt mixture in a large mixing bowl with the shredded Cheddar Cheese.
In another large glass or plastic bowl, make alternate layers of Popped Corn and garlic-Cheese mixture, coating the Popped Corn as evenly as possible, especially at the edges of the bowl.
When layered, place the  bowl into the Microwave and cook for one (1) minute on High. Shake the bowl gently; rotate the bowl 180 degrees and cook for one (1) more minute. Do not overcook.
Immediately turn the gooey mixture out onto cookie sheet, and quickly shape into plum-size balls.
Place the balls onto sheets of Parchment or Wax Paper to set.
If the popcorn mixture gets too hard to mold, just zap it in the Microwave for a few seconds to keep it pliable.

Makes about 4 dozen popcorn balls, but that's up to you.

Recipe adapted by Wait At The Bar

Image Courtesy : Noble Popcorn

And, in case you're wondering, the world's largest popcorn ball was unveiled in Sac City, Iowa in 2009. It contained 900 pounds (408 kg.) of popcorn, 2,700 pounds (1225 kg) of sugar and 1,400 pounds (635 kg.) of Dry syrup mixed with water. It held the record until later that year when a group at the Indiana State Fair, built a 6,510 pound (2953 kg.) popcorn ball, beating Sac County’s record by 1,510 pounds (685 kg.), but the Indian ball was pulled apart to feed livestock at the end of the festivities. Sac City’s ball remains the largest popcorn ball still intact.

© L. M. Sorré

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