Tap to Read ➤

Popcorn History

Kanika Goswami
Popcorn - no trip to the movies is complete without it, no summer outing is good without it, and at home, what's better than settling into a comfy couch with a bowl of popcorn? But how much do we know about the origin of this magical experience?
It's sad but true that what the ancients called corn was, in most cases, not corn at all. In all probabilities, the term corn was used as a blanket reference to the cereal in use by the civilization. In real life, it used to signify the most used grain of a particular region.
Accordingly, in the Egyptian reference, the old bearded Lady Pharaoh probably used barley and we feel she had corn.
 In most pyramids were there are references to popped corn, the mistake is in this manner, for the ancient Egyptians ate barley more than corn, used it more and even preserved it more specially for the afterlife goodies of their dead. So in the ancient Egyptian and even some biblical references, popcorn could be said to mean popped barley.
Even in later times, corn was wheat in England and oats in Scotland and Ireland. It was only in American cultural reference that corn took on so much significance. Even in America, it was corn that was cultivated in most widespread manner and called `corn', a name it retains to date.
It is an interesting fact that the earliest use of the grain of corn was popping, and it must have been a self ignition action to begin with. Later, as fire became central to the concept of cooking, corn must have popped faster and better.
The oldest evidence of popped corn comes from The Bat Cave of West Central New Mexico. These ears have been dated to being about four thousand years old, if not older.
So we have evidence that popped corn and cultivated corn was indeed American by origin. In ancient times, grain was popped by heating sand in a pit and stirring in kernels of corn when it was quite hot. This kept the kernels in the tassel and tasted good too.
This American connection was maintained and in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Aztec Indians used the ear of corn as well as popped corn in various cultural contexts, ceremonies, and even dances. They were, curiously enough, also used as ornamentation.
The 'civilized' world, though, caught its first glimpse of the popped corn only in the fifteenth century, when Cortes invaded Mexico and met up with the Aztecs. Apart from food, they used popped corn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues of their gods, including Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.
The God of Fishermen was also worshiped with what the Aztecs called the 'hailstones given to the god of water', which were actually popped corn. The Spaniards saw these little white flower like things and understood that this was parched corn, the kind that spews open its contents when heated.
The Aztecs called it momochitl. This was the great grandfather of our own buttered and peppered variety.
The Peruvan Indians also knew the art of popping corn, and Cobo wrote of them in the sixteenth century that, "They toast a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.".
With a history as illustrious as this in the American continent, how could it be long before the true corn burst upon the scene in all its glory? By the eighteen hundreds, the cultivation of corn became widespread in the continent and the uses of the grain became even more popular.
In half a century, popcorn became a hot favorite with the young and old alike and more and more methods of imparting it more taste were dug up. Fairs, parks, and expositions would be deserted without a popcorn counter.
No outing would be complete without a large helping of popcorn. Mechanized methods of popping now came into use and the demand pushed up the number of new inventions for this purpose.
Till the Great Depression, street vendors would set up shop wherever there was a reasonable crowd, pushing their steam or gas-powered poppers through crowds.
C Cretors and Company of Chicago introduced the first mobile popcorn machine to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was an instant hit with the convenience of moving it about to any location where the operator would be likely to do a good business.
It could be drawn readily by a boy or by a small pony to any picnic ground, fair, political rally, etc., and to many other places where a good business could be done for a day or two. The era of the popcorn vendor had arrived.
During the Great Depression of the nineteenth Century, with very little money in circulation, popcorn was one of the last few luxuries that the average American could afford. Binging on the extravagant five or ten cent pack of popcorn was something that most of them had to be content with.
As a result, even as the bigger, better restaurants failed, popcorn business thrived, though at a much lower financial level. The situation was comic in some cases and downright ridiculous in others.
Some rags to riches stories too were based on the popcorn magic, like one Oklahoma Banker who lost everything when his bank failed bought a popcorn machine in a store near a theater. In a couple of years, he had enough money power to buy back three of the farms he'd lost; such was the power of the little popped corn.
The fortunes of this popular snack seemed to be connected with those of the entertainment industry. So when the television became more popular than movies in the 1950s, popcorn consumption again hit lows, since, less people were visiting cinema theaters, and more were lounging at home, in front of their TV sets.
The next logical business step was to provide popcorn at home, so it could be eaten with TV watching, just as it used to be eaten with movie watching. This new relationship that was forged again gave an impetus to popcorn consumption.
During the World War II, Percy Spencer of Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation was looking at mass production of magnetrons, which were being used to generate microwaves used in the war. He wanted this technology to be harnessed for uses in civil life to continue the utility of Raytheon technology even after the war was over.
Popping corns was one of the most important experiments he carried out with this tool and the result was microwave cooking technology. Thereafter the going was easy; popcorn was but a pop away even at home and could be enjoyed with a good TV show just as with a great movie. And microwave popcorn, making its appearance in the 1940s, was the in thing.
Since then it has been the most popular form of popcorn sales and accounts for huge financial figures every year. The result is that Americans consume about 17 billion quarts of popcorn every year today. We really have come a long way from the barley pops of Tutankhamen!