Popcorn! You know what is is. You’ve been to the cinema. That’s where it’s grown, urban legend has it, before it spreads across the world uncontrollably!
Not necessarily true, of course, which is why we’re here today to celebrate the history of popcorn and put the record straight. Such as why it’s international law to eat the stuff whilst watching films. Here we go! 🍿
Popcorn is a special type of corn kernel that blows up when heated, resembling a sort of puffed out piece of rice.
You can get popcorn in all sorts of flavours, such as plain, with black pepper, salt, caramel, chocolate etc. etc.
In the UK, our favourite brand is Propercorn. It does popcorn right, man! And the best flavour for us is the Propercorn lightly sea salted. Ooh yeah!
Although the sun-dried tomato and chilli popcorn is also something else.
Bet you’re getting hungry, eh!? Well, more instructions on how to make this lot further below. But first…
The History of Popcorn
Humans have been making popcorn since antiquity. By which we mean a very bloody long time ago. And there’s archaeological proof of just how long ago.
That history is similar to other famous recipes we’ve covered like the history of pizza. The stuff has been around for aeons.
Corn was first used in agriculture around 10,000 years ago in the region inhabited by Mesoamerica (that bit we now call Mexico). Evidence of popcorn existing dates back as far as 4,700 BC.
Basically, it looks like popcorn has been around for at least 6,000 years.
And it does all seem to hail from what we know call the Americas, with the people of the era clearly having a massive fondness for it.
That popularity spread through time and cultures. The Aztecs (1300-1521) were in love with the stuff and even invented a word for the popping nature of popcorn. They went with totopoca.
But the Aztecs treated corn much more than food. They’d also:
- Wear it as decoration
- Use it for ceremonial purposes
- Fashion, such as with necklaces
- Ornaments and statues of their deities
A Franciscan friar and missionary priest called Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) wrote of his travels to the Aztecs.
“A number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon [the girls’] heads.”
The Age of Discovery was, as you’d expect really the great unifier for popcorn.
As we’ve covered before in Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World (2003), spices were a huge deal as sea travel opened up international trade. And you can bet popcorn was part of that. At some point, locals will have wowed Europeans with the fancy popcorn stuff.
In fact, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca (or just Hernán Cortés) documented his first glimpse of the stuff in 1519.
That’s after he invaded Mexico, by the way. So, yeah, not the nicest of chaps.
Cortés didn’t write this, but Spanish travellers saw a ceremony to an Aztec deity and had this to say.
“They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which 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.”
Clearly, for the region of South America corn had great symbolic value. It was even found in burial sites along Chile dating back 1,000 years.
Apparently, that corn was so well preserved it could have been heated up and popped as popcorn there and then.
Cut to more recent times and popcorn really began to become more than a casual snack into a corporate empire.
The 19th century popularised the stuff, thanks to stove tops making the process easier. And for the first time, the term “popped corn” reared its head. That was in the Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) by American historian and linguist John Russell Bartlett (1805-1886).
In the 1890s, the very first popcorn specific machine was invented.
The US manufacturing company Cretors did this, introducing popcorn street carts to American cities for the first time. The contraption relied on steam-power to pop those kernels.
So, yeah, a steam engine was responsible for the first major commercial ramp up for popcorn. And you can imagine the stir this thing would have caused back in 1890.
Compare that to alternative techniques, such as the Chinese popcorn cannon. This thing is still in use today across China with street food merchants.
Anything to do with popcorn creation has a big visual, psychological surprise. We guess that’s part of the reasons humans took took it so readily (that and the taste, of course).
But just wait for this one! Big explosion coming up.
And the arrival of WWII only cemented popcorn’s popularity, as sugar was in short supply. What was the solution? Cook up some popcorn.
In the US during the war, Americans ate three times more popcorn.
And with Americans turning to the cinema as moral support and escapism, two legends were set in stone for the rest of us to enjoy, ad infinitum, up to the present day.
How Popcorn Became Synonymous With Cinema
But, yeah, it’s worth taking a closer look at how popcorn and cinema marched hand in hand through the 20th century.
Cinema’s appeal and trajectory changed dramatically in 1927 when the first films with sound began emerging. This opened the movies up for a mass audience, as previously some level of literacy was required to understand most silent films.
The figures say it all. 90 million people were attending the cinema each week by 1930. Despite that surge, cinema owners had actually resisted introducing snacks.
It wasn’t until the Great Depression (1929-1939) that popcorn began popping (lol) up, costing between 5-10 cents for a big bag of the stuff.
In 1938, cinema owner Glen W. Dickinson Sr. began sticking popcorn machines into the lobby areas of his Dickinson theatres. He was surprised to find popcorn started earning more than cinema tickers—he bought some corn farms specifically to focus on kernel production and the rest is history, innit.
And you can see why it succeeded. 🍿
Popcorn is super cheap to produce, it’s in wild abundance, it’s tasty, and it’s easy to mindlessly stuff into your face whilst watching a movie.
It’s also nice to know people back during the Great Depression, and as horrible as it must have been, could take some time out to catch a movie and eat some popcorn.
It’s something we take for granted now, but we can pinpoint 1927 exactly as the year popcorn began its handholding journey with the cinematic experience.
Why Does Popcorn Explode? BOOM!
Popcorn is famous for its explosive nature, making it one of the most dangerous foodstuffs known to humanity. But why does it go boom, ma!?
Well, in the hull the moisture turns to steam when it’s heated up. The pressure that builds then leads to a massive explosion that ruptures the hull.
The explosion is such the kernel will expand to over 20 times its original volume. Boom!
And we want you to imagine all over the above information set in the fashion of that final scene from the TV series Chernobyl.
How to Make Popcorn
There he is again. Jamie Oliver is so hot the popcorn kernels pop just by being in his very presence. Phwoar!!
If he couldn’t get any better, he’s also championing the use of Marmite in the above video. He is the perfect man.
Sadly, we can’t all have Mr. Oliver in the kitchen with us to save on gas and/or electricity. Instead, you’re just going to have to get these ingredients:
Spices (salt, black pepper, cinnamon etc.)
Yeah, so you just need to buy porn kernels and heat them up in some oil. Then layer on all the ingredients like a crazy SOB.
Voilà! Perfect with any film you care to think of.