Archive for Thursday, January 22, 2009

Popcorn: A universal, tasty treat

January 22, 2009

Is there any better way to spend a frigid winter evening than sitting by the fire and watching a good college basketball game and munching on a big bowl of popcorn? Come to think of it, popcorn is also great on a summer night watching a Royals baseball game or just relaxing, reading a book and enjoying popcorn.

Popcorn is one of the lower-calorie treats that you can enjoy. Certainly, it is one of the oldest snacks known. Apparently popcorn was a favorite of pre-historic Indians. In addition, it must have been a universal treat for Native Americans. French explorers found that Native Americans living in the north were enjoying corn popped in pottery jars in the Great Lakes area. Thousands of miles to the south, tribes were savoring pop corn. A Spanish explorer wrote in 1650 that Peruvians were eating a “kind of corn heated until it burst.”

A 1,000-year-old kernel of popped corn was discovered in Utah. Corn estimated to be from 4,000 to 5,000 years old was discovered in a cave in New Mexico. Apparently, the Spanish and French explorers took popcorn back to Europe, but not necessarily for food. One Spaniard wrote that he thought popcorn would make a great decoration for a lady’s hair. Apparently that idea didn’t catch on, although there are reports of popcorn being used in decorating.

I have to wonder about the scenario when early humans learned that heated corn would pop and still be edible. One theory is that some of the tribes believe that gods were trapped inside the corn kernel and the popping was their angry response as they were released. The theory goes on to explain that they believed eating the popped corn brought protection. Anyway you look at it, popcorn has been around for a long, long time. It didn’t take the early explorers to learn that popcorn was good to eat.

What is the reason why heated corn would pop? Well, it seems that popcorn kernels are about 15 percent water. If the kernels are heated to 400 degrees, they explode and produce a product which is many times larger, softer and edible.

Early colonists soon took a liking to popcorn because it was tasty and could be easily stored. They had a variety of uses for popcorn, including making chains used to decorate Christmas trees. I was surprised to read that even today some corn is popped and used as packing for dishes and other breakable items.

Despite its many uses, popcorn soon found a place as a favorite treat. While Americans always enjoyed popcorn, it really became popular in the 20th century. During World War I, sugar wasn’t readily available so many Americans turned to popcorn. It really became popular during the Depression because it was cheap. A bag of popcorn could be bought for a nickel or a dime which was affordable, even in the days of economic pressure.

Even today, popcorn remains one of the most affordable treats at concession stands. There can be no doubt that the advent of movie theaters which featured popcorn as a treat was a major factor in the food’s growing popularity. It occurred to me that you can almost afford to buy popcorn at a Royals or Chiefs game although it is still overpriced.

As Americans became diet conscious, plain popcorn gained popularity. Depending on toppings added, popcorn is relatively low in calories, yet it is filling. One of popcorn’s most important assets is that it can be prepared many ways. It can be lightly salted or heavily buttered. It can be made into sweet treats such as popcorn balls or caramel corn. It is an extremely versatile treat.

The arrival of the popcorn popper and microwave popcorn increased the ease of preparation. Even a culinary challenged person like me can pop corn!

Americans love popcorn and each year snarf billions of quarts of the popped delight. One Web site pointed out that each American eats an average of 54 quarts of popcorn annually. The same site pointed out that Americans consume about 16 billion quarts annually. Popcorn is a big business with its own trade association, and there is even a popcorn museum in Marian, Ohio.

Because I always fight the “battle of the bulging tummy,” I learned to like dry popped corn, which was lightly sprayed with water and salted.

You know, writing can be hard work, and I think that I’ll reward myself with a nice bowl of delicious popcorn.

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