Popcorn history

Ah, the magical sound of popping corn but what exactly is it about this wonderful snack that makes it explode into the fluffy, flaky goodness we know and love? Popcorn’s a specie of corn known as Zea mays everta and happens to have a particularly interesting characteristic. Unlike a great number of other grains, the pericarp or the hull as it’s otherwise known is hard and resistant to moisture, meaning moisture can neither get in or more-importantly, get out. Inside the seed is something called the endosperm, which is made up of hard, dense starch and a little water and oil. That little bit of water makes a huge difference when the popcorn is heated.

The water begins to turn to steam, however due to the impervious shell, it can’t escape. This means as the temperature rises, so too does the pressure inside and as such, the shell erupts allowing the starch inside to expand. Upon expansion, meeting the cool outside air it forms the airy foam we all recognise as popcorn. Within the “industry” there are two different types of flake. There are butterfly flakes, which are irregularly shaped pieces with wings, and then there are mushroom flakes which take on a more ball like shape. It’s the mushroom flakes that are often used for the prepackaged popcorn and confectionary.

The origin of popcorn

Did you know that POPCORN is actually one of the oldest snack foods known to man? It’s so old in fact that there’s even evidence of popcorn being found in the “bat cave” in New Mexico, dating back to 3600 BC. That’s a whole lot of popcorn history. The origins of popcorn however, aren’t so clear but it does seem to go hand in hand with domestication of maize by Central and South Americans. In fact, the English word “corn” is actually quite misleading as corn originally meant any cereal plant that was most used at the time.

To the English, corn was wheat but in Scotland or Ireland, corn meant oats. When European settlers went to the U.S, they found inhabitants growing what was then known as Indian corn. Despite European settlers in the new world encountering popcorn in Central and South America, there’s actually no evidence to suggest that it was present at the very first thanksgiving like so many believe. Instead the popcorn we know and love actually found its way to North America as Valparaiso corn and was brought by the sailors and whalers from the Chilean ports around 1820. It took just a few years before it began to be known as “PoPCoRN”, an Americanism that became popular the world over.

The courtship of the movies and popcorn

The relationship between popcorn and the movies first began for the simple fact that movie theatres in the 1920s were fighting a major PR battle. While movie theatres wanted to create a certain image, one of class and sophistication, with grand sweeping architecture and lobbies, they suddenly became unattainable for the common folk and too refined for the common man’s snack. Owners of movie theatres didn’t want to deal with the mess and aroma of popcorn, subsequently shunning it. As we know only too well today however, technology and economics can change everything and the biggest shift in film technology was the addition of something called synchronised sound. By 1927, you were able to hear what the actors were saying on screen without having to rely on title cards.

As a result, the movies suddenly opened up to an entirely new audience in the form of people who couldn’t read, more often than not, poor and young children. This new audience simply wasn’t attracted to the palatial surroundings of a movie house. Then sadly came the great depression and suddenly everyone in the movies were struggling, everyone except the street vendors who were suddenly busy as buttery popcorn became a goldmine. Popcorn was suddenly the cheap luxury that everyone could still afford in the darkest of times and as a result, it became the first snack smuggled into movie theatres under the coats of guests.

Popcorn became so popular in fact that you could easily make a living as a popcorn street vendor. The proof was most certainly in the pudding in the form of an Oaklahoma banker who lost everything in the stock market crash. To make ends meat, he resorted to selling popcorn in front of movie theatres and within a couple of years, he’d made enough money to buy a house, a farm and a shop.

After realising the true popularity of the snack and the potential earnings to be had, movie theatres began to jump onboard. Independent movie theatres were the first ones to reap the benefits of the popcorn gravy train. A manager, R.J. McKenna, running several movie theatres at the time began selling popcorn inside the movie theatre lobby where he found the buttery aroma boosted sales in a huge way (we wonder just how much sales would have boosted had they have been selling Hot Madras Popcorn too?).

By 1938, he was said to be collecting a whopping $200,000 in proceeds and let’s face it, for that sort of money, who cares if the carpets got a little messy. There was also another chain of movie theatres along the east cost that began experimenting with the snack in their smaller theatres, keeping the nicer, fancier theatres concession free. They later found the theatres selling the popcorn were making huge profits whereas those without, began dipping into the red. Popcorn was literally saving the movie business, so much so in fact that a Depression-era businessman gave this piece of advice, “Find a good place to sell POPcoRN and then build a movie theatre around it!”