I promise not to pop off any corny jokes today. Let’s just celebrate National Popcorn Day by indulging in the salty, buttery snack favorite!
Of course, you might prefer yours differently. That’s the beauty of popcorn: it’s highly customizable. Some might like it with lots of butter and salt (me) while others prefer it sweet, or cheesy, or with unusual ingredients like dashi or seaweed flakes. Popcorn toppings are limited only to the boundaries of your imagination.
Popcorn was discovered thousands of years ago in Guatemala. One can only imagine the look of surprise on the face of the guy whose ears of corn suddenly started exploding! How does this happen, exactly? I’ll put on my Bill Nye bow tie and give you a science lesson, boys and girls. Corn is a grain with a hard shell that does not allow moisture inside, and a dense, starchy interior with a bit of natural oil trapped inside. When heat is applied, the moisture inside each kernel turns into pressurized steam as the starch inside the kernel softens. When the pressure reaches 135 psi and the temperature hits 356°F the hull ruptures, causing a sudden drop in pressure inside the kerne. This forces the steam to expand and turns the starch and proteins into an airy, crispy foam that “pops” open. Voila! Your Jiffy Pop is ready, sir.
Popcorn made its way to Mexico and then north. Fossilized kernels have been found in New Mexico dating back thousands of years. English settlers who “discovered” America in the 16th and 17th centuries learned about popcorn from Native Americans. As thanks for turning them onto the tasty snack, they stole their land and wiped out entire tribes through battles and diseases, but that’s political commentary for another time. Popcorn really caught on during the Great Depression, when it sold for 5-10 cents a bag, far cheaper than most other snacks at the time. The movies were a favorite entertainment pastime, and cinema operators wanting to make a quick buck bought portable popcorn machines, set them up in their theaters, and began selling the snack to patrons to enjoy during the film. Popcorn, along with sticky floors and people who forget to turn their damn cell phones off, has been a movie theater staple ever since. During World War II, sugar rationing meant less candy, but more popcorn, and sales tripled. It’s been a favorite snack ever since! The average American consumes 51 quarts of popcorn every year.
Once upon a time, popcorn at home was usually made over the stovetop. This is not as easy as it seems, although with practice you can master it. With the invention of the microwave came microwave popcorn, probably the single reason most people use the bulky appliance in the first place. We have an air popper at home, and that is both convenient and easy to use, and the popcorn turns out uniformly perfect every time. Plus, you don’t have to worry about diacetyl, the toxic chemical that destroyed the lungs of workers in microwave popcorn factories a few years ago. Unless, like MSG, you find diacetyl irresistible.
To celebrate, we went to the movies. Naturally, right? Tara and I took the kids to see The Hobbit in 3D, which we enjoyed along with buckets of popcorn. This particular theater has a “butter bar” where you can choose from various flavored butters, like garlic and jalapeno, and an assortment of toppings. Garlic butter popcorn hit the spot, and everybody enjoyed the film. In fact, now Tara wants to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Be still my heart. I think I might have those movies lying around somewhere…
And I’m sure we’ll have popcorn while watching them, no matter which food day it is.