A history of popcorn

When it comes to popcorn, more often than not it’s the sound that hits you first with its “pop, pop, popping”. It starts off nice and slowly before heading full steam ahead into a firestorm of kernels as they almost magically transform into clouds of crunchy white goodness. The next thing you’ll no doubt notice is the incredible smell that wafts through the room and eventually the entire house, slowly pulling you in as it teases your nose. You’ll feel weak as the popcorntantalises your taste buds. By the time your teeth crunch down on the first bite, you’re totally and utterly hooked. Popcorn happens to be one of the most popular snacks and described by some as a completely irresistible treat.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding and the fact that it’s near enough impossible to keep a bowl to yourself during movie night says it all. Before you’ve got time to grab a second handful, everyone’s diving in and your bowl of popcorn has been reduced to nothing but a few crumbs. Popcorn is indeed a tasty treat on its own but it can also be made with a variety of exciting toppings including butter, sugar and even caramel. It’s essentially the perfect canvas for absolutely any flavour you desire. 

So what is it that makes our favourite snack pop? Well, the secret lies in the kernel. Popcorn originates from a particular variety of maize that creates small kernels with a tough outer shell. These kernels can’t be chewed unless you enjoy the feeling of cracking your teeth but to get to the fluffy part inside you need to heat it. By heating it, you’re turning the moisture inside the kernel to steam and creating internal pressure. When the outer shell has reached its maximum pressure point, it eventually bursts and releases the soft flake we all know and love. It’s this that creates the recognisable popcorn shape. Popcorn isn’t a new snack, in fact it’s actually been around for quite some time.

Popcorn was first domesticated by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples by 5000 B.C.E. It was a smaller and somewhat harder version of flint corn and came in white and yellow kernels. The stalk would produce several ears at a time although they were a lot smaller and would yield less corn than any other maize. What may surprise you most is that popcorn isn’t the only maize to actually “pop”. The fluffy white flake to erupt from other varieties however, tends to be much smaller. It’s estimated that popcorn arrived into America’s green and pleasant land over 2500 years ago but it still wasn’t being grown east of Mississippi until the early 1800s. Fast forward to today however and the Midwest is famous for what’s known as its “corn belt”, in fact America as a whole is known for its huge love of popcorn.

The evidence of its famous pop didn’t appear until roughly 1820 when it was first sold around the US under its previous name of Pearl. Thanks to its taste and low price, its popularity grew quickly and it wasn’t long until it spread throughout the South. By 1840, popcorn had its foot firmly in the door when it came to America. It became so popular in fact that rather prestigious literary magazines such as New York’s “Knickerbocker” would begin to reference popcorn. The word “popcorn” was even included in John Russell Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms”. It was claimed that the name had simply come about as a result of the noise it made upon bursting open.

Daniel Browne was the man responsible for one of the earliest recorded recipes of popcorn. His recipe included the use of a grill, a half-pint glass of popcorn and a frying pan that had been rubbed with lard or butter. He advised holding the pan over the fire whilst constantly stirring or shaking the corn and within a few minutes, the popcorn should have turned inside out to reveal the delicious white, fluffy centre. He also mentioned the addition of salt or sugar whilst it was still hot for added flavour. The issue with this particular method however seemed to be with the lard or butter. The butter would usually begin to burn before the pan reached a hot enough temperature and the lard would create popcorn that was covered in slime-like grease.

It wasn’t until the latter portion of the 19th century that a more efficient way of popping popcorn was discovered. What were deemed to be “poppers” were actually boxes made of tight wire gauze and had long handles attached. They were designed to be held over an open flame. The design of poppers offered a number of benefits including the containment of popped kernels whilst also keeping any hands away from the heat source. Over the years, the popper became hugely popular and as a result a number of improvements were made to make it bigger and better than ever. Due to the improvements, popcorn became even more accessible to the masses of people wanting to get their hands on some. 

As popcorn became more and more popular, it began to appear in all different areas in a variety of locations. If the name LousiRuckheim doesn’t ring a bell to all you popcorn fans out there then it should. If only for the simple fact that this was the person responsible for the first version of Cracker Jack which is popcorn made with peanuts and molasses. There are a number of different stories that describe just how Cracker Jack got its name but it undoubtedly came about through the popular slang term during that time that meant “excellent”. The mass appeal of popcorn was taken to an entirely new level when it was introduced as the best snack for movie theatres. Surprisingly enough, the owners of movie theatres weren’t hugely welcoming when it came to popcorn sales as they thought it created a huge and unnecessary nuisance. In addition to this, they believed it would entail expensive changes such as installing outside vents in order to rid the theatres of popcorn smells.

Seeing the huge potential there was in terms of popcorn sales, many simply took matters into their own hands and began selling popcorn inside of the theatres simply by walking up and down the aisles. The Depression changed a lot including the minds of some of the more stubborn theatre owners as they began to realise that popcorn was actually a small luxury that their patrons could afford. Unlike every other treat, the sales of popcorn rose during The Depression. To keep costs down, theatre owners simply charged outside vendors a dollar a day to sell popcorn from outdoor stands. This saved a lot of money, as there was no need to install indoor concession areas. In 1938 however, a man named Glen W. Dickson began installing popcorn machines inside the lobbies of his theatres. Owning several theatres meant the construction changes were at a huge cost but he managed to get his investment back quickly as his profits skyrocketed. Glen W. Dickson it would seem led the way and the trend spread rather quickly. In fact, this trend took hold so strongly that it’s still a prominent feature in movie theatres today. 

Most recently, the GMO debate gained a lot of head way in the US especially when it came to the subject of corn. With the vast majority of corn grown in the US being genetically modified, it was refreshing to hear that popcorn is the only variety of corn to still refrain from being genetically modified. This means that not a single kernel of popcorn is genetically modified and as a result, the popcorn we enjoy today is still grown from the same simple and wholesome seeds. 

Let’s celebrate the history of popcorn with an original recipe

Cracker Jack popcorn is a recipe of popcorn that seems to have a firm place in the history of the treat so it makes perfect sense to make it with our quality raw kernels. It’s ideal for packing up in a picnic or taking with you to a sports game or movie theatre. In fact it’s even the perfect accompaniment for any home movie night. There’s simply no bad way to enjoy this popcorn. It’s actually quite simple to make with the only piece of specialist equipment needed being a thermometer. To make this delicious popcorn treat, all you need to do it whisk the ingredients together, allow it to simmer and then wait for it to reach 205 degrees. When it’s ready, pour over your freshly popped popcorn, mix in the peanuts and put it all in the oven. 

The ingredients you need include:

10 cups of freshly popped popcorn

1 cup of brown sugar

¼ cup of corn syrup

6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons of water

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 cup salted peanuts 

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees and line a baking tray with parchment paper.
  2. Pop your popcorn or simply open a tub of our handmade, freshly popped sea salted popcorn and place in a bowl that’s been lined with a layer of cooking spray.
  3. In a large saucepan, mix together brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt and water and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer and stir continuously. When it reaches 250 degrees on your thermometer turn off the heat.
  4. Whisk in vanilla and baking soda and then immediately pour the hot mixture over your popcorn. Using a spatula (preferably rubber) gently fold the mixture into the popcorn and then transfer onto the baking tray you prepared earlier. Spread evenly.
  5. Bake in the oven for 1 hour and stir every 20 minutes. After the hour, remove from the oven and leave on the cool rack. Once you’re satisfied it’s cooled enough, gently break it up and serve immediately.

Reference - http://www.popcorn.org/EncyclopediaPopcornica/WelcometoPopcornica/HistoryofPopcorn/tabid/106/Default.aspx 

McQueeny, Steve (1939). “How the Glen W. Dickson Theater Circuit Found New Profits in Lobby Shops.” Better Theater, 4 Mar. 1939.