Popcorn: The Incredible Exploding Crop

Yes, you can grow this tasty treat.

| November/December 2008

  • Fresh batch
    A fresh batch of kettle corn cascades from the popper at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Virginia.
    Pat & Chuck Blackley
  • Colorful ears
    A collection of ears shows white, yellow and red popping corn.
    StockFood.com/Solzberg Studios
  • Popcorn stand
    An independent hardware store in Moorestown, New Jersey, offers freshly popped popcorn to its youngest patrons.
    Steve Greer/AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com
  • Packaged popcorn
    Different colors and flavors of popped popcorn adorn a shelf at a carnival booth.
    iStockphoto.com/Jim Langford

  • Fresh batch
  • Colorful ears
  • Popcorn stand
  • Packaged popcorn

Americans love popcorn. In fact, we love it so much we consume 16 billion quarts annually. That’s 54 quarts of puffed-up kernels per person every year. With popcorn’s unique ability to support so many flavors, that number is likely to grow. Popcorn can be buttered, salted, sweetened or spiced, and it makes a nice addition to traditional favorites, such as tomato soup. As a whole-grain food, popcorn is a good source of fiber and is relatively low in calories (31-55 calories per cup), if you don’t mind eating it without the butter.

Explosion of history

The archaeological record indicates that the human relationship with popcorn-like corn was alive and well as far back as 5,600 years ago. In Mexico City and on the east coast of Peru, artifacts created by pre-Incan cultures indicate the utilization of popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and other ornaments. When heated, some of those preserved kernels still popped 1,000 years later.

Christopher Columbus in 1492, Hernán Cortés in 1519, and French explorers around the Great Lakes region in 1612 reported that Native Americans used popcorn for a number of purposes, including as a trade good. Legend holds that Native Americans brought popped corn to the English colonists at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Later, colonial women served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast.

In 1885, Charles Cretors of Chicago, Illinois, invented the first popcorn machine, which he tested by peddling freshly popped kernels on street corners. Around 1890, popcorn was important enough that farmers began growing it as a market crop. In 1893, F.W. Rueckheim introduced the first caramel corn. His brother, Louis, modified the recipe, and, in 1896, created Cracker Jack popcorn.

During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries families could afford. Consequently, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.

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