I’ll admit it. One of the favorite things about going to see a movie is the theatre concession popcorn. Sure, the movie is (usually) good, but that salty treat, with its classic crunch is the best! Yes, I usually put extra butter on the delicacy. The butter isn’t actually butter. Rather, it’s a type of flavored oil, used for its intense flavor and lower water content to assure the kernels don’t get soggy. Clarified butter would work just as well (heated in advance to purge off moisture), but that is very costly.
Popcorn is one of the few things that really smells good to me and makes me think I’m hungry, even if I’ve just eaten well. The scent of freshly popped popcorn is part of the experience and can set off a (usually unnecessary) buying spree faster than Pavlov’s dog looking for a drink of water!
My first recollection of popcorn was popping the corn in a cast-iron pot with a heavy lid. The whole setup was hefty, and required us kids to stand on a chair, grasping both handles with pot holders and shaking the pot while keeping it on the flame. The process was pouring cooking oil to cover the bottom of the pot, adding enough popcorn kernels so that just about one single layer of corn obscured the bottom, placing the lid on, turning the flame on our gas stove to medium-high, and then listening for the sound of kernels doing their magical transformation from hard compact seeds to fluffy delicacies. Once the popping really began to pick up, the rapid side-to-side movement of the pot began to assure nothing was lost to burning.
Heck, I even remember the brand name we used: Jolly Time. It seems to me it was in a can or cardboard container, somewhat like a small version of an oatmeal package. Later, it was in a plastic bag. It was a snack mainstay in our home — along with freshly roasted peanuts, also done in that same pot.
Even with all the association popcorn has with the concession stand at the movies (that included the drive-in — remember the red and white boxes?), popcorn’s history goes way back, and for other uses than a snack.
It’s estimated that some form of popcorn was utilized by man even as cave-dwellers. Pollen has been found underground in central Mexico, thought to be around 80,000 years old, that is almost identical to the pollen of modern-day varieties. It’s been in other cultures for centuries, including China and India. Closer to home, there was even popped popcorn found in a cave in southern Utah believed to be 1,000 years old. Clearly, it’s had appeal for a long time, both as an edible and decoration. Ancient drawings show popcorn being used to adorn headdresses, and popcorn has been found in funeral urns. And we thought we were clever stringing popcorn to adorn the Christmas tree!
Early Europeans arriving on this continent learned about popcorn from the Native Americans. It’s believed that Native Americans brought popped corn to the first Thanksgiving! Wow, if they could have only seen all the products, both sweet and savory, that have been the result! Popcorn balls, Fiddle Faddle, Cracker Jack, cheese popcorn (popular in holiday tins), kettle corn, or caramel corn, anyone?
Popcorn is pretty easy to grow for home gardeners. There are four basic types of corn: field, sweet, ornamental and popcorn. They all require warm weather to germinate and grow, along with plenty of water. They are in the same family as common grasses, so they are rapid growers. This requires fertile soil, water and plenty of sunshine to accomplish. Corns will grow better planted in blocks, rather than a few or single long rows. This is because corn will fare better in windy or dry conditions because of combined strength of plants beside each other (there’s got to be a life lesson in there somewhere), as well as shading to soil below to retain moisture longer. Just as importantly, corn needs other corn plants all around it to pollinate well. It’s a messy pollinator, accomplished by breezes and gravity much more than pollinators such as bees. This requires adjacent plants to get the job done, or the pollen from the tassels will drop to the ground without getting the job done it was created to do.
It’s because of this pollination method that you can’t grow popcorn and sweet corn adjacent to each other, especially if they are reaching the tasseling stage at the same time. Flavor and texture will be compromised, especially in the sweet corn, as characteristics of the popcorn manifest themselves in the crop. This is because corn is said to be “promiscuous.” I’m not making this up, it’s a real botanical term, describing the ability of corn to readily cross-pollinate with other corn species. Who knew there was this type of “sizzle” in agriculture?
As for the types of corn, field types possess hard-shelled kernels and can be a flint or dent type. These are used for animal feed or are ground into cornmeal. Ornamental corn is beautiful, colorful and many times highly patterned, but to say that it’s not palatable is an understatement. It’s great to look at, but if it shows up on your dinner plate, someone doesn’t like you very much! Sweet corn is the most popular type of corn grown in the home vegetable garden. It can be enjoyed roasted or boiled on the cob, or cut from the cob eaten (or, should I say, devoured) as soft, cooked kernels. Popcorn is the only type with kernels that pop.
That is because each hard-shelled kernel contains a small amount of water (13.5 percent is optimum) and the right kind of starch that will allow it to “pop.” What is actually happening is that the kernel is heated to the level that the moisture turns to steam, creating pressure. The carbohydrates in the kernel cook, creating an expanding foam momentarily. With these two forces at work, the hull splits forcefully, with the resultant sound we look forward to hearing. The carbohydrate foam expands out quickly and instantaneously hardens to the form we are accustomed to seeing and enjoying.
You might be interested to know that the U.S. is the popcorn production capital of the world. Not only do we eat tons (literally) of it, but we are the major supplier to the rest of the world. Major production areas are Nebraska and Indiana, although areas in Iowa, and Illinois claim to the “The Popcorn Capital of the World” as well. Texas is becoming a major growing area for this crop too.
Even today, popcorn continues to gain popularity. Like many products, it comes in a variety of versions, flavors and accommodations to those that are watching their fat, calorie or salt intake. Over the years, popcorn has been prepared in American homes via pans (like we did), air popper, prepackaged disposable pans (remember Jiffy Pop?), and, beginning in 1981, General Mills began distributing microwave popcorn. Since then, microwave popcorn has become the most common way un-popped popcorn is purchased, and is responsible for strong growth in the popcorn industry. As much as I miss the nostalgia of my childhood method of popcorn preparation, packets of corn, easily and cleanly cooked, with the snack easily transferred to a waiting bowl, is hard to beat. Yum.
Here’s one last reminder that this year’s Master Gardener’s Class is beginning next Tuesday, Jan. 3t, from 6-8 p.m. This is a 14-week Tuesday-night class that covers all the key areas you’ll need to take your gardening results to the next level. Cost is $150 per person or $180 per couple and includes all instruction, course materials, and a one year membership in the Tooele County Master Gardeners Association. Register by contacting Andrea DuClos at the USU at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 435-277-2409. You’ll be glad you did!
That’s it for this week. I think I’ll saunter upstairs and tune into one of our favorite shows. You can be sure I’ll have a bowl of freshly popped “butter flavor” microwave popcorn on the TV tray beside me. No matter how good the show is, it’s going to be better with some hot popcorn!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.