Popcorn in the afternoon

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, May 4, 2016 10:22 PM

I’ve been trying to eat better. It’s a constant with me. Some months I’m better than others. Today I had a tomato/cucumber/avocado/blue cheese salad. It was delish. And an hour later, I was hungry. I wandered into the kitchen and stood there for a minute. 

“If I made some popcorn, would you have some?” I asked Kevin. He was on his feet and in the kitchen within seconds. 

I made a big pot of white popcorn and sprinkled it with salt. I wanted to melt some butter but I didn’t mostly because I still had work to do and the butter would make my fingers greasy on the computer keys. I split the popcorn between us and we each went back to our own corners. Er, offices. 

There are several snacks that I’ve convinced myself aren’t as bad as others. Popcorn is one of them. 

Popcorn comes from a certain variety of maize that produces small kernels with a hard outer shell. These kernels cannot be chewed without a good chance of cracking your tooth. They’re a little like pebbles. To get to the fluffy edible part, you must heat the kernel, which turns the moisture inside into steam. When the outer shell has reached its pressure point it bursts, releasing the soft inner flake and creating popcorn.

The popcorn variety of maize was domesticated by pre-Columbian indigenous people by 5000 B.C. It’s a small and harder form of flint corn, most commonly found in white or yellow kernels. The stalks produce several ears at a time, though they are smaller and yield less corn than other maize varieties. The pop isn’t limited exclusively to this type of maize, but the flake of other types is smaller by comparison. Popcorn probably arrived here in the Southwest over 2500 years ago, but was not found growing east of the Mississippi until the early 1800s because of botanical and environmental factors. 

Evidence of popcorn’s first “pop” didn’t happen until the 1820s, when it was sold throughout the eastern United States under the names Pearl or Nonpareil. Its popularity quickly spread throughout the South and by the 1840s popcorn had started to gain popularity. Prestigious literary magazines like New York’s Knickerbocker and the Yale Literary Magazine began referencing popcorn. By 1848, the word “popcorn” was included in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms. Bartlett claimed that the name was derived from “the noise it makes on bursting open.” 

By the mid-1800s, popcorn was beloved by families as a late-night snack in front of the fire. But mass consumption of the treat didn’t take off until the 1890s, 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. 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. 

Movie popcorn is, of course, the best. I’m not sure what they do to make it so fabulous, other than the free flowing butter they allow. Interestingly, movie theaters resisted selling popcorn until the Depression when they discovered that it was a way to make money. At $.10 a bag, it was a luxury that most people could afford. World War II further solidified the marriage between popcorn and the movie theaters. Competing snacks like candy and soda suffered from sugar shortages and in turn, rationing, as traditional sugar exporters like the Philippines were cut off from the United States. By 1945, movies and popcorn were like peas and carrots. 

And popcorn in our house is like afternoons and hunger. The perfect way to fill up without it being too filling. It’s what I’m celebrating today.

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