History of Popcorn: Know all the Facts of your Favourite Snacks from Movie Theatre to Microwave
Movie theatres and popcorn go together hand in hand. The flickering silver screen along with America’s favourite concession have linked for several centuries. The tempting smell of popcorn evokes the memories of sticky theatres’ floors and the booming sounds. But how did it come to be the popcorn we consume today?
Popcorn is a type of corn which expands from a corn kernel to a delicious, soft and puffy snack when it is heated. There are about six breeds of corn or maize, which are dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, flour corn and sweet corn. Popcorn is the only type of corn which can pop and expand into the snack we all like to eat when heated.
Popcorn is an extremely popular snack today, probably because it is super easy to make – either push it into the microwave or in a pan on the stove with a lid to stop the heat from escaping. Other than this, it comes in so many flavours – simply salted, butter, cheese, even caramel! People generally like to eat popcorn at the movies, and even this concept has quite a history behind it. Any time of the day, popcorn is a light snack to have, not as unhealthy as one may assume, after all, it’s just popped corn.
Many would think that popcorn only originated in the United States of America, the land of junk food and snacks. This assumption, however, is wrong. In 1948, corn kernels and corn heads dating back to roughly 5,600 years ago from today were discovered by two men called Herbert Dick and Earle Smith inside a “Bat Cave” in what we call today in New Mexico. Evidence shows that in the Central and South Americas, along with consuming popcorn, people also used the same to decorate headdresses, as seen on decorated funeral urns from 300 AD that shows paintings of a maize god wearing this headdress.
There are also other instances in history of popcorn being used for Aztec Indian ceremonies sometime in the early 16th century, which included something called a popcorn dance that the women of the society would partake in. Even the Aztec Indians were found to have used popcorn kernels as headdresses and to make necklaces and ornaments. Traces of popcorn in Peruvian tombs have been found dating to a 1000 years ago, as have 1000 year old (but still pop-able) kernels were found in areas of Utah that were inhabited by Pueblo Indians.
Popcorn became extremely popular with the colonists who came to Native America too. The White people even adapted popcorn as a breakfast food, aside from it being eaten like a snack, by adding it to milk and sugar, somewhat like cereal. They came and conquered the tribal societies and proceeded to adapt to and eat their food as if it were corn flakes or fruit loops.
As a snack, popcorn kernels were often sold on the streets and in the markets with names such as pearls and nonpareil, until some American came out and gave it the simple, obvious name of “popped corn”, as Americans always do. It was an extremely popular snack that was sold, too. During the Great Depression and World War II, people did not have enough money to buy staples like rice, salt, sugar, etc, but popcorn… popcorn was not very expensive, and so it became the means of subsistence during those years for many.
Popcorn was first popped on the stovetop, but it was commercialised after Charles Cretors invented the popcorn machine on a cart in Chicago in the year 1885. This was a portable machine with a gasoline burner, which popped bucketfuls of popcorn at a go. This went on to make popcorn more widely available, and vendors with these carts often hung around crowded places where they knew people would buy some from them. This included near the waiting lines of movie theatres, where there were always people around. People began to carry their snacks into the theatres, and it became quite a rage to do so. At first, this majorly bothered the owners of the movie theatres, as they believed that snacking in the theatres caused distractions from the film, but eventually, they began to install popcorn machines within the theatres themselves. This came after they realised that they could profit off of it because popcorn was now the most popular movie-time snack.
Popcorn at the movie theatres was unheard during the 20th century. However, by the 1930s the snack became commercial and survived the Great Depression and by the 1940s there were no turning back, popcorn and movie theatres engaged into a lifetime relationship. at first, popcorn was sold to the movie patrons from the street carts. Some theatres fought for the snack and made people check outside along with their coats, eventually making it common to offer from the theatre itself. thereafter, the middlemen were removed and the business was conducted from within. During the time, the theatres serving snacks were embraced, while the others went forced to shut down.
Julia Braden of Kansas City, Missouri was amongst the first vendors to allow selling of popcorn within the movie theatre. She persuaded the Linwood Theatre and allowed a stand to set up in the lobby, creating a popcorn empire. By 1931, she owned stand in and near four movie theatres earning more than $14,400 a year and her business even grew amid the Great Depression.
In the beginning, movie theatres preferred yellow corn, which when popped, left behind a yellow tint that gave the impression of having a coat of butter. However, the combination of butter with popcorn came from a way back from 1893 when Charles Cretors invented the mobile popcorn machine attached to a peanut cart and cooked popcorn in a mixture of butter and lard. The recent secret recipe of butter topping includes hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial flavouring, beta carotene for colour and preservatives.
Today, the delicious popcorn comes in varieties of tempting flavours, which are prepared including ingredients such as cheese, butter and salt, caramel, nuts, cinnamon, chocolate and coffee. Some also use several herbs such as chives and dill, meat such as bacon along with adding varieties of spices along with butter, salt and cheese.
Over time, popcorn as a snack was imbibed into American culture, with the launches of popcorn brands and the recent availability of easy, microwaveable popcorn which eradicated the need for the stove. The microwave, and henceforth, microwaveable popcorn, was invented by an engineer called Percy Spencer in the year 1945. He worked for a high technology company which was always trying to create innovative machines and devices. He once kept a bar of chocolate in his pocket while standing in front of a magnetron (a machine that creates microwaves). By the time he took out his chocolate, it had melted. Excited, he tried to do the same thing with a kernel of corn, and it worked. This led to the invention of the microwave and the subsequent invention of microwaveable popcorn. the first patent of the microwavable popcorn bag was issued in 1981 to General Mills.
Today, different companies specialise in just the sale of popcorn, such as Act II popcorn. Popcorn is eaten all over the world, whether microwaved popcorn at home or machine popcorn at the movies. Today, popcorn is one of the world’s favourite snacks.
With the introduction of the microwavable popcorn bag, home consumption increased by tens of thousands of pounds. Today, the majority of Americans now get their popcorn from their microwave rather than the old process of popping them on the stove, consuming about a million pounds of unpopped popcorn in a year.