A Brief History of: Popcorn

One of the secrets of the big beautiful multi-national company I work in is that, almost any time of the day, they serve giant bowls of delicious popcorn. I don't know how they do it, but it is always lovely: fresh and delicious, giant salt flakes, no butter but still light and flavorful. Every once in a while they serve some gourmet variations--usually from Ike & Sam's--that are bizarre and delicious (like cheddar kettle corn and kickin' cayenne) and once I went to a company-sponsored film screening in Central Park where they served caramel-Oreo-cookies popcorn (oh heaven), but generally I stick to the tried and true: plain, lightly salted, delish.

And why not? People have been snacking on popcorn for 4,500 years! The earliest popcorn cobs, found in a cave in Mexico, were probably used both as food and decoration (like ancient preschool Christmas tree decorations!). Native Americans, who introduced popcorn to Europeans, thought the pop the corn made was an angry god being released. After burning many bags of popcorn in my day and seeing a black, twisted, smoldering pile of gunk eat through my microwave, I can understand this idea. Popcorn was at the first Thanksgiving, in addition to popcorn soup and beer, and was crucial to the survival of those comically-inept farmers, the Puritans (when my second grade class reenacted the first Thanksgiving, we had our own popcorn popping ceremony, whereupon the astonished Pilgrims gasped as mere corn was transformed. Of course, this was in the 90s, and my teacher used Pop Qwiz, the popcorn that came in neon colors, so I always kind of thought the astonishment was more about Day-Glo food than the popcorn itself...).

In the 1700s, people began using oil for popping, replacing the previous method of sticking the whole cob over a fire. No knocks to popcorn beer, but soon people added salt and sugar to popcorn, even putting it in milk for Colonial-style cereal. The first commercial popcorn makers were developed by Charles Creators, who brought the popcorn cart to the street in the late 1800s. Popcorn exploded (heh) in popularity during the Great Depression, when 5-10-cent bags made cheap and easy snacks for cash-strapped Americans. When World War II led to sugar rations, people consumed 3 times as much popcorn to get their snack fix. Since then, popcorn remains a cheap, healthy, and easy-to-find snack, delighting movie-goers and dieters worldwide.

And ok, popcorn is healthy in its pure state--sugar free, low in sodium and calories, and high in fiber. Less healthy: movie theater popcorn, which is essentially a bucket of oil with some kernels floating along helplessly. A 1990s report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a medium-sized portion of popcorn contained more fat than "bacon and eggs, a Mac and fries, and a steak dinner combined." A small size of popcorn contains 29 grams of saturated fat, about as much as three Big Macs. Yum. Still, butter and oil-less, popcorn is a healthy snack.

I don't really like movie theater popcorn. Something about it just makes me feel greasy (maybe the massive quantities of butter and oil?), and I always feel vaguely sick after eating it. Granted, buttered popcorn smells dreamy, being the kind of thing that always attracted a flock of hangers-on whenever someone made it in high school, but after a while my tongue feels like it has been shellacked in artificial butter, and I just had to give it up. The problem then, is that people don't really make microwaved popcorn with no flavoring ("Light Butter" is usually the best you can get), giving the popcorn-hungry no choice but to turn to their own devices.

Home popping is one of those things that is best described in Little House on the Prairie-terms, with Ma hauling out the old dutch oven and Laura and Mary patiently waiting for the pop pop sounds as Pa pulls out his fiddle. Minus the fiddle, actual home popping is not too different. I use pot and oil, although what I really want is one of those nice air poppers that will last me the next thirty years. The technique is easy enough: oil, deep pot, heat, kernels, enjoy. Mixed with a little confectioner's sugar it becomes kettle corn, but you can also melt butter over it or add some sea salt. So long as you don't go overboard on the extras and use an oil low in saturated fat and trans fat, it's still healthier than anything you'd get in the grocery store or movie theater. And as for how popcorn pops: oil and moisture inside a super-hard kernel are heated until they steam, eventually breaking the husk. The sudden expansion and drop in pressure leads the starch inside the corn to explode into a foam (this video shows it in super-slow motion). *The More You Know.

Popcorn! Sweet or salty, simple or cookie-coated, a lovely snack.

1/2 cup popping corn
oil (I use sunflower)
1 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar

In a large, deep pot, coat the bottom with oil
Place three corn kernels in the oil and heat the pot to medium-high, covered
When all three kernels have popped, pour in remaining kernels and cover pot
As kernels pop, don't stir the pot--unpopped kernels will fall to the bottom
When you can count to five between pops, turn down heat
While still hot, toss with confectioner's sugar and sea salt, turning so popcorn is evenly coated
Remove popcorn from pot and serve

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