Day 658: The Sumptuous Buttery World Of Popcorn

originally published October 19, 2013

The esteemed American poet James Joseph Brown Jr. once wrote, “But when I get funky, I do the sap. And when I want lovin’, mother, she got to have. Say, you got to have a mother for me. Yeah, popcorn.”

And so it was.

Popcorn is one of the most universally beloved snacks by folks who don’t wear braces. It can exude so many personalities, from the puckish kiss of sweet caramel to the warm seductive sploosh of melted butter to that weird pink stuff in the box with the elephant on the front. That’s the popcorn the other popcorns don’t talk to at parties. There’s something not right about that guy.

But for the most part popcorn is a friendly snack, sharing our greatest movie experiences with us and even reminding us about the importance of flossing when one of its stubborn husks decides to take refuge behind a molar. And popcorn is a big business. Americans snarf down more than sixteen billion quarts of popcorn a year, which works out to about 51 quarts per person. That’s a lot of popcorn.

There’s an old legend about the Native Americans giving popcorn to the newly-landed Europeans, but a fair amount of archeological poking around the US has uncovered absolutely no evidence to support it. Corn was, however, a major crop down South America way, around where Peru sits today, and there’s evidence of popcorn having been consumed there close to seven thousand years ago. To be clear, they found corncobs that date from around 4700 B.C. – how they extrapolated that the corn was devoured in pop form, I have no clue. But the Smithsonian Museum said it happened, so who am I to argue?

Popcorn became a fairly popular snack in America around the late 19th century. A lot of people would pour milk on it, add a dash of sweetener and call it a cereal. Sounds gross? Well, tell me that next time you pour yourself a bowl of Corn Pops. Unless you think those are gross as well, in which case you win this round.

Charles Cretors, who had already re-worked the technology of roasting peanuts to a perfection, came up with a steam-powered doohickey that could pop popcorn uniformly in oil. Gone were the days of half-burnt hand-cranked street-vendor crap-corn. Cretors had revolutionized the snacking world, and he wanted to show it off. He hauled it to the Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. the World’s Fair) in Chicago in 1893. It was a huge hit.

As it turns out, the Columbian Exposition was the nexus of popcorn development in our universe. While Charles Cretors was showing off the future of popped goodness, F.W. Rueckheim was right around the corner, demonstrating his molasses-covered “candy corn”, the first ever caramel corn to brighten up young mouths. F.W.’s brother Louis was such an ardent supporter of his brother’s vision, he borrowed it, tweaked it, and introduced Cracker Jack (with a prize inside!) in 1896.

And this was just the beginning. Right around this time the motion picture was busy getting invented, which meant the popcorn craze was about to explode (sorry) any minute now, right?

Well, not exactly.

One of the great unspoken ironies of the movies is that nobody ate popcorn while the movies were silent. Many movie houses were grand theatres, and its proprietors were diligent in keeping food out of patrons’ mouths in order to keep their plush red carpets tidy. Right around the time movie audiences were starting to follow actual speaking dialogue on the screen, a widow named Julia Braden coaxed a local Kansas City theater owner into letting her sell from her popcorn cart in the lobby. By 1931 she owned four such stands in town and was pulling in over $14,000 a year – more than $336,000 in today’s money.

As the Great Depression wore on, the relatively inexpensive snack became hugely popular. During WWII, while most candy companies had to scale down operations due to milk shortages and sugar rations, the popcorn industry thrived. It helped out particularly in the Midwest, where fields of corn was grown specifically for popping. There are six municipalities claiming to be the Popcorn Capital of the World, all stretching between Nebraska and Ohio.

There are two varieties of popped corn. On the left you’ve got your mushroom shape, which doesn’t have quite the sensuous mouthfeel of its companion, but is the preferred variety for soaking up that sweet crunchy caramel due to its less fragile nature. On the right is the esteemed butterfly popcorn. Studies have shown that people prefer the largest butterfly popcorns – and theater owners love them too. Corn kernels that yield a wider pop are terrific for a business that buys the kernels by weight but then sells them by volume. Keep in mind, the average markup on movie theater popcorn is a whopping 1,275%.

The same cob of corn can spew out both mushroom and butterfly popcorn, though hybrids have been created that can produce only one or the other. Oh, and popcorn pros call a popped kernel a ‘flake’. Good to know if you want to impress Orville Redenbacher’s great-grand-niece or something. Unpopped kernels are called spinsters. If the grand-niece is also a spinster, you might be able to marry into some of that golden popcorn fortune. Go for it!

So just how healthy is this luscious golden snack? Well, depending on how you like to eat it, you may or may not want to know.

If your favorite popcorn is air-popped, with no added butter or salt, first of all don’t invite me over for movie night. But the good news is, you’re enjoying a snack that is high in dietary fiber and antioxidants. You’re chowing down on almost no calories or fat, and zero sugar and sodium.

In the mid-1990’s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (no doubt headed up by Dr. De-buzz Killstein, Ph.D.) did some digging into movie theater popcorn sold in the US. They found that a medium buttered popcorn contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac, an order of fries, and a steak dinner. Combined. Slap on a box of Milk Duds and you might as well make candles out of your arteries. And things haven’t changed – an FDA investigation in 2010 showed that a small popcorn from the largest theater chain in the country still bursts with 29 grams of saturated fat, the equivalent of a day and a half’s recommended intake.

Sure, stats like that might make me think twice about ordering a dripping bag of extra-buttered (or extra-golden-toppinged, whatever) popcorn when I hit my next movie. But I’ll still order it. Come on… it’s popcorn, dammit!

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