Before about 1912, less than 19,000 acres (7,700 hectares) of farmland were dedicated to growing popcorn, but the electric popcorn machine and the microwave increased the demand for "prairie gold." Today, annual consumption of popcorn in America exceeds 1 billion lb (0.45 billion kg) or 71 quarts (67 liters) per person per year. The states of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio lead the field. Of the volume grown in the United States, 10% is used for seed and sold outside the United States; 30% is sold at ball games, movies, fairs, and circuses; and 60% is consumed in the home.
Corn may have begun its long evolution as a kind of grass. In the Americas, corn varieties, including popcorn, were cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America and Mexico and by the Incas in South America. The Aztecs decorated their Gods of Rain and Maize with strings of popcorn. North American Indians also strung the popped kernels on grass strings and used them for decorations and personal adornment. Archaeologists have found popped corn in dwelling caves in New Mexico, and the corn is estimated to be 5,600 years old. Scientists' best guesses for the age of popcorn and the place where it originated are 8,000 years and in Mexico. Curiously, popcorn was also common in parts of India, China, and Sumatra before the discovery of the Americas, but the paths and methods of its migration are unknown, as is the reason for its existence in these areas but not others. Part of the answer may be the hardiness of this type of corn over others or the change in climate conditions around the world over thousands of years.
Popcorn officially crossed into Western culture at the first Thanksgiving celebration. Popular legend has it that Quadequina, brother of the Indian chief Massosoit, brought a deerskin bag full of popped corn to that harvest celebration. The Indians' methods for popping corn varied from tribe to tribe. They probably discovered how to pop popcorn by accident because the hard kernel doesn't give any hint of the potential treat inside. The earliest poppers of corn may have thrown it into the fire and eaten the kernels when they popped and flew out of the flames. Our only historical evidence of early but more sophisticated popping methods is from the Incas whose ruins contain specially shaped clay pots with kernels of popped corn still inside them. The Incas apparently heated sand and placed it in these pots, then placed the corn on the sand. The pot was covered, and heat from the sand popped the kernels. The heavier sand stayed at the bottom of the pot, and the popped kernels rose above it where they could be reached.
Over 700 types of popcorn were being grown in the Americas by the time Columbus discovered these continents. French explorers in 1612 saw the Iroquois people popping corn in clay pots; and the Winnebago Indians who lived near the Great Lakes simply drove sticks into the cobs and held the cobs near the fire. Popcorn soup was a favorite method of using the grain among the Iroquois, and the Indians of Central America even made popcorn beer. Early explorers observed ornamental necklaces, bouquets, and headdresses made of popcorn.
In early America, popcorn became a ritual part of many festivities including quilting bees and barn raisings. In cabins and homesteads, corn could be popped in the fire-place, seasoned with grease or butter, and shared by the family. Popped kernels were used as teeth in Halloween pumpkins and strung in long ropes to festoon Christmas trees. Popcorn was the accompaniment to banjo playing, singing, and the telling of ghost stories and folktales. In the 1700s, the first puffed cereal was created by pouring milk and sugar over popped corn; this breakfast dish was popular from Boston south to the Carolinas.
Popcorn was grown in family gardens or farms or bought from neighbors who grew more than they needed until about 1890 when it started to become recognized as a legitimate cash crop. The first automatic popcorn popper was a steam-powered machine invented by Charlie Cretors in 1885; before Cretors' invention, street vendors popped corn in wire baskets over open fires. By about 1890, the glass-sided popcorn machine with its gasoline burner became a popular feature of the circus, carnival, sideshow, local fair, and small town streets where popcorn vendors would sell bags of popcorn as dusk fell. The packaging of popcorn for use at home began in about 1914.
In 1893, Fred and Louis Rueckheim used the Chicago World's Fair to kick off their blend of popcorn, peanuts, and molasses. These German brothers made their name in America by manufacturing Cracker Jack, as this mixture came to be called, in a small kitchen and then at the World's Fair. In order to claim a prize, the consumer could mail in a coupon found in every box of Cracker Jack. After the Fair and until World War II, prizes were actually packed in the boxes, although this practice stopped during the War because the prizes were made in Japan. After the War, a bonus prize returned to every box.
When moving pictures became the rage and movie houses opened across the country, the street vendors of popcorn would rent space outside the theaters and sell bags of popcorn to movie ticket buyers. In 1925, Charles T. Manley perfected his electric popcorn machine, and popcorn vendors moved inside the theater where the trapped sounds and smells of popping corn often made more money than the feature film. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, vendors sold popcorn in five-cent bags, and popcorn became one of few affordable luxuries. Meanwhile, back in the theater, the paper bucket replaced the bag as the container for popcorn because the rustling bags made too much noise.
During World War II, popcorn was taken overseas as a treat for American servicemen and was adopted by other countries. In 1945, Percy Spencer applied microwave energy to popcorn and found that it popped; his discovery led to experiments with other foods and development of the microwave oven. Television brought popcorn into the home in the 1950s, when electric popcorn poppers and pre-packed corn for popping were developed and marketed. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a boom in electric poppers, hot-air poppers, and microwave popcorn as the videotape industry brought movies and the desire for all the customs associated with movie-going into the home.
Selection of the best variety or hybrid of popcorn to be grown and processed for the kind of popcorn to be sold is critical to the raw materials comprising popcorn. In some forms of popcorn, the corn itself is the only raw material. For other methods of marketing popcorn such as microwave popcorn, soybean oil, salt, and flavoring are also needed.
Popcorn varieties and hybrids
There are several commercial classifications of corn. Field corn (also called dent corn or cow corn) is fed to animals. Flour corn is mostly starchy center with a soft hull that allows it to be easily ground into flour. Sweet corn is the kind we eat at the dinner table. Flint corn is usually called Indian corn; its colorful kernels make it highly attractive, and it is used for decoration because it is tough and tasteless. Pod corn is also only used for decoration because each of its kernels has its own separate husk.
Popcorn, also a collection of varieties of Zea mays, is the only corn that pops; it is not dried kernels of sweet corn. There are several
The business of developing new hybrids and cultivating known, productive hybrids is key to the creation of popcorn. A hybrid is made by fertilizing one kind of popcorn plant with the pollen from another kind. The result is a seed that has characteristics of both plants.
A major popcorn producer like Orville Redenbacher Popping Corn Company employs a team of scientists to pollinate its hybrid corn by hand. The kernels that are grown are used as seed to grow the popcorn that will be harvested and sold. As many as 30,000 new hybrids per year are created to try to improve the popcorn product. Producers also work with universities to develop ideal hybrids; millions of dollars are invested annually in this research.
Smaller growers like Snappy Popcorn rely on hybrids that are best suited to their location, climate, and type of product. When the hybrid is well matched to geography, it produces a greater yield. Hybrids are also chosen based on resistance to disease and damage from insects, stalk strength, how easily they grow, and how easily they can be pulled out of the ground. Types of kernels are important, so hybrids are chosen specifically to produce carmel corn, microwave popcorn,
Part of the "design" of popcorn is the method used to pop it. The dry method consists of putting the unpopped grain in a basket or wire cage, agitating it over a heat source like the campfire or coal stove, allowing the corn to pop, and seasoning it with butter and salt. In the wet-pop method, corn is placed in a container with a solid bottom. Oil is added (either before the corn or poured on top), and the oil helps to distribute the heat and cause more even and complete popping. Commercial popping machines use the wet-pop method, and coconut oil is used for its aroma and lightness. Microwave popcorn also uses the wet-pop method, although the moisture is present in a solidified form of oil, flavoring, and salt that melts when the microwaving process begins.
- 1 Popcorn grows best in rich soil. It is planted in checkrows, rows that intersect at right (90-degree) angles, so that it can be harvested by machine. Hybrid forms of popcorn have been perfected to produce the most grains per ear of corn, flavorful kernels, the correct internal moisture to insure that most of the corn pops, and other market-friendly characteristics. When the ears are ripe, the corn is harvested with either a picker that removes the ears and leaves the stalks temporarily or with a combine that crushes the corn stalks, mechanically removes the ears, and husks the corn. Combines tend to do more damage to the ears of corn. The ears are collected in the field in bins or boxes and moved into steel cribs using mechanical elevators or conveyors.
- 2 The ears are dried in cribs that are narrow and have open slots to minimize the time needed to dry them. A crib can be up to three stories high, as long as a city block, and with a capacity of up to 4 million lb (1.8 million kg) of corn. The ears are stored for eight to 12 months to allow them to dry, or in an alternative method, hot air is forced up into the cribs through holes in the bottoms of them to reduce the natural drying time. While in the cribs, the corn is carefully tended until the kernels reach a moisture content of 12.5-13.5% moisture, which is ideal for popping characteristics.
In the factory
- 3 The dried ears of popcorn are then transferred by conveyor belt to the factory and a machine called a scalper. The scalper strips the kernels from the cobs. Simultaneously, a cleaner and de-stoner sort out the shuckings and any dirt or particles by passing it through a series of screens to separate the kernels. They are cleaned and polished in another machine equipped with metal brushes that remove the chaff (sometimes called bee's wings). A gravity separator is then used to separate good kernels from bad; the kernels that have matured properly are lighter in weight, so the bad kernels drop through the bottom of the separator and are recycled for use as seed. The kernels near the two ends of the cob also tend to be either too small or too large to pop properly, and the gravity separator removes them as well.
- 4 Finally, in the portion of the factory called the fanning mill, fans blow dust and other fine material off the kernels, and the kernels are treated with a natural, inert fumigant to eliminate insects. Most manufacturers avoid pesticides altogether during the winter months when bugs are less common, and all must comply with government regulations regarding their use. Now completely processed, the popcorn kernels travel toward storage bins on a conveyor belt; quality-control personnel watch the passing flow and vacuum up bad kernels that may have escaped the previous sortings.
- 5 Types of popcorn with no other additives go directly to holding bins to await packaging. For microwave popcorn, measured amounts of salt, soybean oil, flavoring, and popcorn are pumped or dropped into the microwave bags. The bags are not vacuum-sealed, but they are air tight to prevent moisture in the air from affecting the contents.
- 6 In the packaging area, popcorn is conveyed from the holding bins to packing machines where it is placed in bags and then boxed for storage or shipment. Usually, the factory will bag a particular type of quantity, say 5 lb (2.27 kg) bags, until it has met its orders plus some for storage. Then the packing line is changed to accommodate different bags and quantities of popcorn.
Quality control practices are essential in the field and factory. The process of pollinating the ears of corn correctly is essential to the production of any popcorn at all. In the factory, the cleaning processes are carefully monitored, and the series of screens and other devices are chosen to remove all stray materials and unwanted kernels. Even magnets are used to pull out bits of metal that may have been introduced by the farm machinery or storage bins. Finally, a team of quality-control inspectors simply observes the kernels as they move along a conveyor belt and removes poor-quality kernels with a vacuum hose.
Cobs, husks, and stalks are sold for use as feed for cattle and other animals, so very little waste remains from popcorn cultivation and processing.
Popcorn's future was assured in the 1980s when its nutritional benefits were widely publicized. Weight Watchers recommends popcorn as a snack for the weight-conscious, the American Dental Association endorses this sugar-free snack, and the American Cancer Society recognizes the benefits of the high fiber content of popcorn in possibly preventing several types of cancer. Popcorn's nutritional value is so high that doctors recommend it—even with oil—over many other snack foods.
Microwave packaging has also allowed popcorn manufacturers to enhance their product with flavorings that keep well and produce a range of good tastes when cooked. The competition to create the latest taste sensations (or borrow them from other trendy foods) is fierce in the popcorn trade, but this also helps assure the food's future. American popcorn makers compete among themselves for the best yield and novel flavors, but, increasingly, their competition is coming from growers in Argentina and South Africa.
Where to Learn More
Russel, Solveig Paulson. Peanuts, Popcorn, Ice Cream, Candy and Soda Pop and how they began New York: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Woodside, Dave. What Makes Popcorn Pop? New York: Atheneum, 1980.
"Exploding the Popcorn Myth." Yankee (February 1993): 27.
Hyatt, Joshua. "Surviving on Chaos." Inc. (May 1990): 60.
Kummer, Corby. "Hot popcorn: The First Popcorn was Made by Accident. Now There are Better Ways." The Atlantic (June 1988): 96.
Jolly Time Popcorn Company. http://www.jollytime.com .
The Popcorn Institute. http://www.popcorn.org .
Snappy Popcorn. http://www.netins.net/showcase/snappy/snappy.html .
Wabash Valley Farms. http://www.wabashvalleyfarms.com .
— Gillian S. Holmes