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The History of Popcorn

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Don't you love the smell of fresh popped corn? Popcorn's history dates back over 5,000 years ago. It's believed by archaeologists and researchers to be the oldest of a group of five sweet corns; Indian corn, pod corn, popcorn, sweet corn and field corn. Ancient corn pollen (not popcorn variety) has been found and judged to be 80,000 years old. This pollen was found two hundred feet below where the site of Mexico City sits today.


Popcorn was originally grown in Mexico but somehow it had spread globally through India, China and Sumatra years before the first European explorers arrived on North America's shores.


Popcorn ears over 5,600 years old was found in the Bat Cave in New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. The size of these ears of popcorn ranged from 1/2 inch to 2 inches long and are the oldest ears of popcorn known.


Popcorn was popped by throwing it on sizzling hot stones tended over a raging campfire. Naturally, as it popped it shot off in various directions. The game was to catch the popcorn and the reward was snacking on it.


Grains of popcorn over 1,000 years old were disvovered on Peru's east coast. Preservation methods of the Peruvian Indians was so advanced that 1,000 years later, this corn still pops.


The Indians of North and South America popped corn 2,000 years ago. Teenage girls today would most likely balk at wearing popcorn to the prom but Christopher Columbus, in 1492, observed West Indian natives wearing popcorn corsages as well as using popped corn to decorate ceremonial headdresses. Columbus noted in his memoirs that Indians sold popcorn to his sailors.


Cortez, another European global explorer, wrote in his diaries Aztecs decorated ceremonial garb with popped corn. He noted it symbolized goodwill and peace and how the Aztecs made necklaces and other ornaments for the god's statues with the grain, especially that of the god Tialoc, the god of rain, fertility and maize (corn).


An amazingly clear documentation of popcorn comes from an early account of a Spaniard. He records observations of a ceremony honoring the Aztec god watching over fishermen. "They scattered before him parched corn, called momchitl, a kind of corn that bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water."


French explorers, about 1612 in the Great Lakes region, made mention in their documents the use of popcorn by the Iroquois. This popcorn was popped in pottery with heated sand. The Frenchmen took part in an Iroquois dinner that included popcorn soup and popcorn beer.


Popcorn was spreading through almost all tribes of North and South America by the time the Pilgrims arrived. Quadequina, a brother of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe brought popcorn to the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Indians brought popcorn to many of the meetings with colonists as a goodwill gesture - kind of like their contribution to the potluck meal.


Ancient poppers made of soapstone, pottery and metal have been found in Indian excavation sites. Most of these have tripod legs and are large clay containers with lids to be set directly in the fire. They were used with and without oil, depending on preference.


Some Indian tribes discovered the delicacy of popping oiled popcorn while it was still on the cob. Somehow the corn stayed attached to the cob and it was eaten in the same manner as corn on the cob. This is the ancestor of buttered popcorn. The Winnebago Indians have a long history of enjoying popcorn on the cob, stabbing a stick through the cob and holding the ear close to the fire.


During this time, crude popcorn poppers were being invented. Some were small mesh baskets fashioned with a handle made by blacksmiths. Poppers have been found measuring up to eight feet across to handle large amounts.


The colonists loved popcorn so much they served it with sugar and cream for breakfast. This was the very first puffed breakfast cereal.


Popcorn carts were seen on every street always following the crowds after their invention in 1885. These were steam and gas poppers easily pushed through parks, fairs, carnivals, conventions and expositions. Home versions of popcorn poppers were invented in 1925 and quickly snapped up by those able to afford them. Believe it or not, poppers started being manufactured by young teenagers in junior-high metal shop classes to keep up with the demand.


Popcorn eating thrived until the Great Depression. It was one of the few luxuries families could afford. Sugar was rationed and sent overseas to soldiers during World War II so candy was scarce. Because of this, the American consumer ate more popcorn, in fact, three times more popcorn than usually consumed.


However, this upswing was temporarily doomed. As television came into existence and going to movie theaters slowed down, so did popcorn snacking. It took a few years for people to get back into the popcorn habit in front of the small screen. But as you can see Jolly, Jiffy Pop and Orville Redenbacher rake in billions of dollars and popcorn enthusiasts live on.


The Papago Indians of Arizona still to this day pop corn in clay pots up to eight feet wide. These pots are known as 'ollas'. Researchers have documented these poppers go back in design 1,500 years to the South American Indian and Mexican cultures.


Microwave popcorn is responsible for $250 billion yearly sales by itself. Experiments with popcorn and the microwave date back to 1945. Perry Spencer then experimented with other foods.


Today the American public eats over one billion pounds of popcorn per year; translating to seventeen and a half billion quarts! The average American chows down on approximately 70 quarts per person yearly.


 

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Last updated March 2001