The Origins of Popcorn

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Do you love that buttery smell that wafts from your kitchen whenever someone cooks popcorn to be enjoyed at home? Do you look forward to devouring a whole bowl of salted popcorn with your friends when you plan to watch a movie together? Well, if you crave popcorn most of the time, or you’re someone who wants to learn about your favorite snack, then read on to know that popcorns are more than just snacks, it has an interesting history that you certainly don’t want to miss! 

Popcorn Besides Being a Movie Snack

People enjoying popcorn in theater

You would be surprised to know that popcorn is not just a tasty snack, but it is very healthy food packed with tons of nutrients. This whole grain food is best for those who are health conscious and want to cut down on their calories. It has low fats and the dietary fibers in popcorns help in digestion as well. [1] So, the next time you fill your bowl with popcorns at home, don’t feel guilty or worried that you’re overeating.

But there is one thing that you should not forget, the popcorn made at home is healthier than one you get from movie theater shops. Seasoned with extra salt, movie theater popcorn can negatively impact health. [2]

The Origins of Popcorn

Your nutrient-packed snacks have an interesting history, but long before they became popular in America, popcorn did not originate from the US. The history of popcorns date back to 4700 BCE when indigenous people from the Americas including the Aztec and Incas enjoyed the tasty snack. While the crop of corn had been cultivated for more than 9000 years, it was discovered in 2012 that Peru must be the first place where “popcorns” originated. The archaeologists found the 6700 years old corn cob that had popped kernels on it, hinting the origin of popcorn from the region. [3] It is also believed that popcorns became a Thanksgiving meal in 1621 in a Plymouth Colony. [4] Interesting how the simple food has so much history attached to it.

The Early History of Popcorn

yummy bowl of popcorn

Though it is believed that Peru is where popcorn started, the “corn” itself was not the word used for the popcorn that we are so fond of today. Corn in the past meant any grain that was cultivated or eaten the most in the region, the example of this could be the fact that in Scotland and Ireland, oats were used the most so in those countries, oats were called the corn. The American maize became the “corn” that we know of today. 

While it is not clear whether popcorn originated from Mexico or Peru, both regions have a fair share of history to establish that popcorn has some history from these regions. What is interesting to know is that the corn pollens, both new and old, have a lot of similarities. The ones that were found in Mexico are 80,000 years old fossils of corn. European explorers and colonizers made is popular around the world as they came in contact with Native American tribes that have been enjoying popcorn for centuries.

The Discoveries

In the recent times, popcorn ear was found in the Bat Cave in 1948, in Mexico. These popcorn ears were in a variety of sizes, with smallest being the size of a penny and largest, a whopping 2-inch. These are the oldest finds, with the ears being as old as 5600 years. Further discoveries have revealed corn grain in Utah as well as Peru. The ones found in Utah belonged to the Pueblo Indians who used to reside in the caves the corns were found from.

The Aztec Indians and Popcorn

Apart from being a delicious meal, popcorn was very much celebrated by Aztec Indians. When Cortes invaded Mexico and saw the Aztec Indians, he learned about the popcorn for the first time. Not only was it part of their food, but the women would use it as their accessories as well, with young girls decorating their head with popped corn flowers and women wearing them as garlands.

One Spanish described how Aztec people used popcorn as “hailstones” to be gifted to the god of water. The name they used for popcorn is momochitl. [5]

How Popcorn Became Popular in Theaters?

For America, popcorn became the staple with the invention of electric poppers made by Charles Cretors in 1885. The fact that it allowed vendors to move freely with their machines, making popcorn accessible to everyone, boosted the consumption of popcorn. But it was not until 1920 and 1930s that popcorn found its way into the cinema and movie culture. With the advancement in technology, sound systems became better, alluring millions to visit cinemas to watch their favorite movies. By the 1930s, 90 million visitors a week became a norm, resulting in a tremendous rise in popcorn sales and making its market highly profitable. [6]

The Mobile Vendors 

The popcorn kiosks outside cinema or nearby became their go to place before going into the cinema, though cinema managers were not happy with the idea of vendors nearby cinema due to their beautiful expensive carpeting. [7] But great depression changed all that when champagne became an expensive luxury, and movie cinemas owner had no choice but to allow popcorn vendors to provide the snacking luxury to their customers.

Popcorn Business for Theaters

Soon theaters started their own eating space where customers could easily grab a box of popcorn and enjoy it with the movies. What is interesting to note here is the fact that theaters that did not sell popcorn were having a low business whereas those with popcorn kiosks made good profit. [8]

World War II further boosted the sale as the export of sugar from Phillipine was halted, resulting in less sugary snacks in the theaters and popcorn becoming the sole go-to snack for cinema goers.

The Easy-to-Pop Microwave Popcorns

Who doesn’t like the sound of popping corns in the microwave and savoring the delicious, buttery popcorn straight out of the piping hot bag of the corns, we all do! If you enjoy those 2 minute microwave popcorns you have someone to thank for the creation.

Dr. Percy Spencer got the idea to invent a microwave back in 1945 when a chocolate bar melted in his pocket while he was busy working in front of a magnetron. [9] This vacuum tube that generated microwaves picked Dr. Percy’s interest so much that he experimented with the idea of making a microwave and in fact succeeded in making one.

The bag of microwave popcorn was introduced in the 1970s by David W. Andreas and Lawrence C. Brandberg who worked at General Mills. By the mid 1970s, microwavable popcorn became a common sight in grocery stores. It was not until 1984 when microwavable flavored popcorn in bags became famous and were easily made available for people to make at their home. [10]

Popcorn and Its Connection with the Modern Culture

The marriage of popcorn with theaters and cinemas was revealed to you earlier in the article, but did you know even popcorns making it to our homes has a history? Well, if you don’t, let’s dive right into it to learn how popcorn became a common staple at homes.

More than half of the popcorn consumers were theater goers and it is in theaters that it was consumed with so much fervor. To keep this connection of popcorn with theater intact, theater owners started showing advertisements to visitors during the movie, alluring them to check out the food lobby for popcorn. One of the 40-second ad “Let’s All Go to Lobby” became so famous that now it is preserved as a collection in United States National Film Registry. [11]

Television and Popcorn at Home

Family having popcorn on movie night

With the invention of television and easy access of entertainment on personal screens, theaters became almost redundant for a time being and by 1960, many saw a fall in theater and popcorn consumption as well. But do you think the popcorn businessmen were willing to give up, certainly not. Soon EZ Pop and later Jiffy Pop made it easy for people to make their own popcorn at home and the popcorn journey started all over again.

Soon commercials became a common part of the TV industry and popcorns became a part of the weekly routine for people. No wonder, businesses would advertise their movie shows along with popcorns, it is as if the popcorns became a symbol of celebration and fun time. From movies, to sports, carnivals to Thanksgiving, popcorn has become a common food with a variety of variations as per the nature of the celebration. 

Popcorn as the Pop Culture Snack

To advertise their microwave, a German based company by the name of Nordmende, introduced popcorn in the commercial as by that time movie or show night had become inseparable from popcorn. It is interesting to note here that popcorn is very much a popular snack when it comes to carnivals and festivals. Their importance can be gauged from the fact that each year a Popcorn festival is celebrated around Labour Day. [12] The Marion Popcorn festival pays tribute to Marion county for being the top exporter of popcorn around the world.

The 1800s for Popcorn

Popcorn wagon

While the history is extensive some pointers worth noting about your favorite snacks are:

1840 Popcorn was grown for commercial purposes in the US.
1870 Popcorn was consumed as a Cracker Jack along with peanuts, and molasses; it was German invention
1880 The first advertisement of popcorn was published in seed trade catalog
1893 First mobile popcorn machine was invented and exhibited at the World’s Exposition by Charles Cretor.

Isn’t it intriguing how this simple food has so many fun facts attached to it? From being the jewelry to becoming a breakfast cereal and finally becoming the best snack to be gobbled at every other event, popcorn is certainly a snack worth enjoying for its crunchy texture and health benefits.

Popcorn Around the World

Sweet popcorn in different colors

Popcorn is enjoyed in most parts of the world with the US being on top of the list. Other regions where this delicious snack is eaten and liked incude Japan, India, Brazil, and Germany. In Japan, popcorn can be found in many unique flavors such as milk tea, corn potage, and curry. Next time you visit Japan, do try and get your hands on their flavored popcorn.

India is all about spices, no wonder the popcorn in India is flavorful and loaded with a variety of different spices such as Miso soup and Za’atar, Bagna Cauda and Thai Coconut flavors. [13] In Germany, sweet popcorn is popular. In Brazil, you can find a variation known as pé de moleque, which is richly decadent with lots of nuts and caramel. [14]

Some Fun Popcorn Facts

Now that you’re aware that popcorn is not just a tasty snack, but one that has been dominating the snacking industry for hundreds of years, let’s learn about some fun facts that every popcorn lover should know:

  1. The popcorn can expand to as much as 3 times that of its actual size.
  2. Before a movie snack, it was sold as a breakfast product by Kellogg.
  3. In 1900s, it was banned from movie theaters as theaters were considered as an expensive luxury.
  4. October is the national popcorn month, make sure you enjoy them even more during October.
  5. The largest popcorn ball ever made was a whopping 5000 lbs! [15]
  6. When popping, the corn can jump up to 3 feet! So, beware when making them at home and be careful. [16]
  7. Three cups of popcorn is equivalent to your daily need for protein.

Conclusion

Although it is loved by all Americans, the states with the most popcorn consumption are Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana. [17] Next time you enjoy your steaming hot popcorn, make sure you know that you’re snacking on something healthy and full of nutrients. However, try to avoid adding a lot of salt or butter to it, and anything in moderate quantity is appreciated.

References

[1] McDonnell, K. (n.d.). Popcorn nutrition facts: A healthy, low-calorie snack? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/popcorn-nutrition-and-health#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

[2] Popcorn as a snack: Healthy hit or dietary horror show? (2019, June 18). www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/06/18/popcorn-as-a-snack-healthy-hit-or-dietary-horror-show

[3] The history of popcorn: How one grain became a staple snack. (2020, June 11). Serious Eats. https://www.seriouseats.com/popcorn-history-movie-theaters

[4] Butler, S. (2013, December 6). A history of popcorn. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/a-history-of-popcorn

[5]  History of popcorn. (n.d.). Popcorn Central. https://www.popcorn.org/All-About-Popcorn/History-of-Popcorn

[6] Geiling, N. (2013, October 3). Why do we eat popcorn at the movies? Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-do-we-eat-popcorn-at-the-movies-475063/

[7] The history of popcorn: How one grain became a staple snack. (2020, June 11). Serious Eats. https://www.seriouseats.com/popcorn-history-movie-theaters

 [8] Geiling, N. (2013, October 3). Why do we eat popcorn at the movies? Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-do-we-eat-popcorn-at-the-movies-475063/

[9] When was microwave popcorn invented? A historical look at the pioneering invention. (2023, January 11). The Enlightened Mindset – Exploring the World of Knowledge and Understanding. https://www.lihpao.com/when-was-microwave-popcorn-invented/

[10] History of microwave popcorn. (n.d.). Popcorn Boss. https://www.popcornboss.com/microwave-popcorn-history.html

 [11] The history of popcorn – Grand Rapids popcorn. (n.d.). https://grpopcorn.com/blogs/news/the-history-of-popcorn

[12] About the Marion popcorn festival. (2022, August 7). Marion Popcorn Festival. https://www.popcornfestival.com/about/

[13] Braun, K. (2020, August 21). Popcorn flavours around the world » LeelaLicious. LeelaLicious. https://leelalicious.com/popcorn-flavours-around-world/

 [14] Lobo, S. (2020, June 25). Unique popcorn flavors from around the world. TasteForCooking. https://www.tasteforcooking.com/appetizers/unique-popcorn-flavors-from-around-the-world/

[15] Popcorn statistics and facts. (n.d.). See California Vacation Travel Guide | Photos, Cities, Beaches, Hotels. https://www.seecalifornia.com/farms/popcorn.html

[16] 20 fun facts you didn’t know about popcorn. (2021, August 25). Best Darn Kettlecorn. https://www.bestdarnkettlecorn.com/20-fun-facts-you-didnt-know-about-popcorn/

[17] (n.d.). Popcorn Central. https://www.popcorn.org/Portals/0/PB%20Industry%20Facts%20Infographic.pdf

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