The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 28, 2014

Popcorn has considerable significance in pop culture

Point Blank column

Scientists trace its history back for thousands of years, but it still satisfies our needs for a wholesome snack whenever there’s a ballgame on TV or a popular movie playing at the cinemas.

In movie theaters and at circuses, on Christmas trees and in a bowl on the table in front of the TV, popcorn is a grain of considerable significance.

In all likelihood it was the first kind of corn that early man knew, and its explosive properties may even have been instrumental in getting him to eat it.

The oldest ears of corn, found by archeologists in west central Mexico, are of popcorn nearly 5,600 years old. A 1,000-year-old popped kernel was found in a dry cave in southwest Utah. It had been fired by the forebears of the Pueblo Indians.

On the east coast of Peru, 3,000 miles away, grains of popcorn were discovered in such perfect conditions that after 1,000 years they still pop.

The Indians believed that a tiny demon imprisoned inside each kernel made it pop. The demon, in fact, is water; each kernel of corn contains about 14 percent of it.

When heated to 400 degrees F, the water turns to steam and the grain to popcorn, a snowy puff 35 to 40 times the size of a seed that spawned it.

In all, more than 1 billion pounds of popcorn are eaten in the United States each year, enough to fill the Empire State Building 18 times over.

And yet, it wasn’t until the 1880s that popping corn was simplified with the introduction of specially designed home and store popping machines. The first electric corn popper in America appeared on the scene in 1907, at a time when electrical appliances were new, often large, and not always safe.

But the advent of electric popping machines and the realization during the Depression that popcorn went a long way in stretching the family food budget contributed greatly to the food’s popularity.

There was even a time in the Appalachian coalfields, for example, when popcorn was the primary recreational nibble, according to Phillip Wilson of Eccles. The retired miner and popcorn enthusiast told me recently that he counts popcorn among his most cherished childhood memories.

“There was a time when it was all we had to snack on,” says Wilson, who still pops his kernels the old-fashioned way, in a pot on the kitchen stove. He buys his popcorn in 50-pound sacks at Sam’s and seldom goes to bed without his traditional fare. “I have a bowl every night at about 8 o’clock,” he adds.

But it was in the lobbies of the movie theaters that popcorn became big business. By 1947, 85 percent of the nation’s theaters sold the snack, and 300,000 acres of Midwestern American farmland were planted with Indian popping corn. Theaters are expected to supply some $400 million of the salty and buttery product this year alone.

And the arrival of television in the 1950s only increased America’s demands for corn to pop in the kitchen between programs. A mid-decade poll showed that two out of three TV watchers munched popcorn as often as four nights a week.

Not all brands, through were of equivalent quality; some yielded an annoyingly high number of duds, sometimes called “old maids” and “spinsters.” It was the quest to produce high-quality popcorn that led Orville Redenbacher, a graduate in agronomy from Purdue University, to experiment with new hybrids of Indian popcorn.

In 1952, Redenbacher and a college friend produced a corn whose kernels seldom failed to pop — and popped into larger, puffier morsels. Redenbacher began packaging his corn and selling it to retail grocers. Its quality apparently proved worth its price, for it became America’s best-selling popcorn, contributing substantially to the 17 quarts of corn consumed annually by each American, which they pop in electric poppers, in fireplaces, atop stoves and in microwaves.

And while the microwave probably is the simplest way of preparing the little yellow cores, Wilson, the popcorn purist, reasons: “How can you appreciate the miracle of the whole popcorn experience unless you witness the popping episode up close and personal — the white part that explodes, crackles and pops? It’s really that simple.”

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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