Popcorn has one of those enticing smells that makes you drop just about anything you’re doing and rush to the kitchen to be sure you get your share. We never seem to outgrow this infatuation. No matter what kind of newfangled treats entice us at the movies and football games, we still keep reaching for popcorn.
Maize, or corn itself was domesticated from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago in Mexico. From there, corn found its way to Central and South America, and along the way hundreds of distinct types “popped” up. Maize cobs and husks from archaeological sites prove that Pre-Columbian indigenous peoples had domesticated the popcorn variety of corn by 5000 B.C. In Peru, for example, even though the ancients didn’t have microwave ovens and multiplex movie theaters, they certainly had popcorn. In fact, researchers digging in Peruvian tombs have uncovered 1,000-year-old grains of popcorn so well preserved they still pop.
The Aztecs of the early 16th century not only ate, but also adorned themselves with popcorn. Young women would wear garlands of the stuff and perform what explorer Bernardino de Sahagun writes was a “popcorn dance.” Popcorn was also strung into ceremonial headdresses and necklaces, and was used to ornament statues of Aztec gods.
In North America, radio carbon dating proves that ears of popcorn found in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico are about 4,000 years old.
When Columbus stumbled upon the West Indies, Arawak and Carib Indians were using popcorn for decorations and food, while French explorers in the Great Lakes region learned how to pop corn from Iroquois, who performed the task by heating pottery crocks in hot sand.
The Iroquois also made a hot cereal by boiling pounded popcorn in water until thick, and added cream and syrup. American colonists, too, ate this whole grain for breakfast, but they served theirs as plain old popcorn topped with milk and sugar.
Early popcorn lovers likely popped their corn while it was still on the cob. And tossing individual kernels into heated sand or directly onto hot rocks also seemed popular.
The earliest popcorn popper dates back to pre-Inca cultures in Peru, while the first mobile popcorn machine was invented in Chicago in 1893. Soon after, pushcart popcorn vendors were following potential customers in America’s streets, and they also camped out where crowds assembled, such as movie theaters.
Then in 1925, Montana inventor Charles Manley perfected the electric popper, which was embraced by movie theater owners, thereby fusing together one of the most successful marriages in culinary history.
Way back when, some Native Americans believed angry spirits dwelled inside each mysterious kernel. But the reason this variety of corn explodes is because its hull has just the right thickness to allow the insides to burst out.
Each kernel of popcorn contains a small drop of water inside a circle of soft starch, which is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water expands and turns into steam, and the starch inside becomes a gelatinous goop.
As the kernel reaches about 347 F, the pressure inside forces the hull to open and explode, resulting in a funky shape that’s 40-50 times the grain’s original size.
Americans eat 16 billion quarts of popped corn per year, amounting to a whopping 51 quarts per person. And we’re popping about 70 percent of that at home, especially in the fall, when crunching on popcorn seems to lessen the agony of a stressful football game. So as you gather friends and family into your living room to cheer on the Saints or your favorite college team, don’t forget the popcorn.
And if Brees gets sacked or those gnarly Falcons get lucky, your guests will at least have something delicious to lessen the pain.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of The Delta Queen Cookbook. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.