The History and Discovery of Popcorn
Popcorn is a variety of corn that bursts or “pops” out of its kernel when hot. The first people to discover they could pop corns were the American Indians about 5,000 years ago. Popcorn is thus one of the world’s oldest snacks. Other types of corn such as Indian corn, sweet corn, field corn and pod corn don’t have the popping quality.
Early Cultivation, Use and Making of Popcorn
The popcorn variety originated in Mexico where it was cultivated by the Native Americans. Archeological evidence have found ears of corn as old as 5,600 yearsLater on it was imported to India, Sumatra and China. It became popular with Europeans in exploration periods. They too brought the popcorn home with them.
Popcorn was a challenging snack back then. To pop the kernels, the Indians threw them on hot stones over campfires. As the popcorn flew into the air, they would catch them and eat them. Eventually they grew tired of this and invented corn poppers that would contain the erupting food.
The ancients clearly knew how to keep their popcorn. In Peru, they have found preserved kernels some 1,000 years old and they still pop.
Native folks throughout the Americas also used popcorn as ornaments. Girls would wear them as corsages. Adults used popcorn to adorn their headdresses. When Columbus came to America, the Indians sold their work to his sailors. But the foreigners preferred to eat their new discovery than wear them. They mixed the popcorn with cream and sugar to make the very first breakfast cereals.
Among the Aztecs, popcorn was a symbol of peace. Whenever Indians would meet with colonialists in friendly terms, they would bring popcorn with them as a token of their goodwill.
Because maize (corn) was an important part of their diet, they associated their gods with it and adorned their deities’ statues with popcorn. An amusing superstition was that the noise from popping corn was due to an angry god or spirit leaving the kernel.
Popcorn in the Modern World
The modern age of popcorn started with popping carts. These were invented in 1885. It made it easy for popcorn vendors to roam the streets, parks, carnivals and other public places. They were always popular with the crowds as it was affordable and convenient. In 1925, corn poppers for home were invented. These were welcomed by the rich who could buy them.
People continued to eat popcorn even through the Great Depression. In fact it was one of the few cheap snacks they could afford. But consumption reached its peak during the Second World War due to the scarcity of sugar and sugar-based junk foods like candy.
Today the world consumes one billion pounds of popped corn annually. Each person in America takes in about 70 quarts of it a year.