It’s hard to think of a more purely American food than popcorn. Whether it’s salted and buttered at a movie theatre, kettle corn at a state fair or a caramel popcorn ball at holiday time, we devour the stuff. And we’re far from the world’s first popcorn fans: Archeologists have found traces of popcorn in 1,000-year-old Peruvian tombs. This week, we’ll take a look at the story behind this popular snack, and discover that there’s more beneath that hard husk than meets the eye.
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It’s been said that popcorn was part of the first Thanksgiving feast, in Plymouth Colony in 1621. According to myth, Squanto himself taught the Pilgrims to raise and harvest corn, and pop the kernels for a delicious snack. Unfortunately, this story contains more hot air than a large bag of Jiffy Pop. While the early settlers at Plymouth did indeed grow corn, it was of the Northern Flint variety, with delicate kernels that are unsuitable for popping. No contemporary accounts reference eating or making popcorn in that area, and the first mention of popcorn at Thanksgiving doesn’t appear until a fictional work published in 1889, over 200 years later.
So if America didn’t first eat popcorn at Thanksgiving, when exactly did it happen? French explorers wrote of Iroquois popping tough corn kernels in pottery jars filled with heated sand. The Iroquois nation spread throughout the Great Lakes region, so it’s likely that settlers to upstate New York, Vermont and Quebec were the earliest European-American popcorn makers. By the mid-1800s, popcorn was beloved by families as a late-night snack in front of the fire, or at picnics and sociables. But mass consumption of the treat didn’t take off until the 1890s after a Chicago entrepreneur named Charles Cretors built the first popcorn-popping machine.
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Cretors was a candy-store owner who purchased a commercially made peanut roaster so he could offer freshly roasted nuts at his shop. But he was unhappy with the quality of the machine and began tinkering with it. A few years later, Cretors had designed entirely new machines, powered by steam, for both nut roasting and popcorn popping. The steam ensured all kernels would be heated evenly, for the maximum number of popped kernels, and it also enabled users to pop the corn directly in the desired seasonings. By 1900, Cretors introduced a horse-drawn popcorn wagon, and the era of the popcorn eaters began.
Of course, the majority of Americans now get their popcorn from a microwave, not a horse and buggy. The first patent for a microwave popcorn bag was issued to General Mills in 1981, and home popcorn consumption increased by tens of thousands of pounds in the years following. Today, Americans eat about a million pounds worth of (unpopped) popcorn a year.