Although Americans are now avid consumers of popcorn, and its agricultural history is long, its commercial history is comparatively short. Popcorn was not mentioned in early farm papers and seed trade catalogs until around 1880, but once the American public discovered it, popcorn’s popularity quickly grew.
Scholars agree that corn, and popcorn, originated in the Americas. Precisely how it originated, however, is a topic of debate. It is believed by many experts that corn was developed by centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses like teosinte. There has also been much speculation about how popcorn may have been prepared or used by the native Americans, fueled by findings of popcorn in archeological digs. According to The Popcorn Board:
- The oldest known corn pollen is scarcely distinguishable from modern corn pollen, judging by an 80,000-year-old fossil found 200 feet below Mexico City.
- The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. Ranging from smaller than a penny to about 2 inches, the oldest Bat Cave ears are about 5,600 years old.
- In tombs on the east coast of Peru, researchers have found grains of popcorn perhaps 1,000 years old. These grains have been so well-preserved that they will still pop.
- In southwestern Utah, a 1,000-year-old popped kernel of popcorn was found in a dry cave inhabited by predecessors of the Pueblo Indians.
European explorers throughout the Americas were introduced to, and intrigued by, popcorn. Around the year 1612, early French explorers through the Great Lakes region noted that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things. Writing of Peruvian Indians, Bernabé Cobo, a missionary in Peru between 1609 and 1629, remarked that they toasted “a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.”
The new settlers embraced popcorn. Colonial families sometimes ate popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast. Some colonists popped corn using poppers consisting of a cylinder of thin sheet-iron that revolved on an axle in front of the fireplace like a squirrel cage. Popcorn was still very much a small, homegrown crop.
Popcorn really caught on during the 1890’s and was very popular even through the Great Depression. Street vendors, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers, used to follow wherever a crowd might be. They were a common sight at fairs, parks, and expositions, and restaurants also began to sell the fluffy snack. During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries struggling families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.
During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for US troops, which left little excess for making candy. Thanks to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual. Popcorn sales dropped during the late 1940s, however, when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters declined and, with it, popcorn consumption. The Popcorn Institute (a trade association of popcorn processors) began a campaign to convince consumers that popcorn was as good to eat while at home watching television as it was at the movies. A successful popcorn advertising partnership with Coca-Cola and Morton Salt, along with advertisements of individual popcorn companies’, made the early 1950’s the largest home-consumption growth period for the popcorn industry.
In the 1980s, the popcorn industry saw another growth spurt with microwave popcorn. Today, Americans consume 17.3 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year, and the average American eats about 68 quarts. (Popcorn history courtesy of the National Agricultural Library.)
It’s safe to say I eat at least 68 quarts of popcorn each year, but none of it comes from the microwave. Call me old-fashioned—or just leery of the vast number of ingredients in microwave popcorn … shouldn’t it just be popcorn and oil?—but I like to pop my corn the old fashioned way, on the stove.
And that’s just what I did when I made the “Maple Pecan Popcorn” recipe from the September 2003 issue of the now defunct Gourmet magazine.
I made this recipe for our annual “Friends Thanksgiving” last November, and it was a total hit. Don’t let the use of a candy thermometer (essential for this recipe) scare you … it’s well worth it for the tasty treat you get!
Maple Pecan Popcorn
About 8 cups plain popcorn
1 cup pecans (3 1/2 oz), coarsely chopped and toasted
3/4 stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Toss popcorn and pecans in a large bowl.
2. Line bottom of a 17 x 11 four-sided sheet pan with foil, then lightly oil foil.
3. Melt butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add maple syrup and salt and boil (still over medium heat), without stirring, until a candy or deep-fat thermometer registers 300°F, 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Pour syrup over pecans and popcorn, stirring briskly with a lightly oiled spoon or silicone spatula to coat, then immediately spread popcorn in pan in 1 layer.
5. Cool completely, then break into bite-size pieces.
This recipe makes about 10 cups of popcorn and takes about an hour from start to finish (including the cooling time). It also keeps in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 week.
I used local popcorn from Bellews Creek Farm (available at Local Harvest Grocery), and after a little digging on the good ‘ole Internet, I learned that 1 tablespoon of unpopped popcorn kernels will give you slightly over 1 cup of popped popcorn (hence I used 8 tablespoons of unpopped popcorn for this recipe).
As I said, this recipe was a huge hit so I urge you to make some for yourself. I th
ink I’ll go make some popcorn now … mmm.