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In honor of National Popcorn Day, which was Jan. 19, we turned to The Popcorn Board to learn about this food that is one of the most wholesome and economical available. We also included four new recipes provided by The Popcorn Board, a non-profit organization funded by U.S. popcorn processors (companies which get popcorn from the field to stores) which strives to raise the awareness of U.S. popcorn as a versatile, whole-grain snack via domestic and international marketing efforts.

Americans consume 15 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually; that’s about 45 quarts per man, woman and child.

According to The Popcorn Institute, approximately 70% is eaten in the home (home popped and pre-popped) and about 30% outside the home (theaters, stadiums, schools, etc.). Unpopped popcorn accounts for approximately 90% of sales for home consumption.

For centuries, people have been fascinated by popcorn, which contributes carbohydrates and fiber to the diet. Early Native Americans believed a spirit lived inside each kernel of popcorn. When heated, the spirit grew angry, burst out of its home and fled into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.

A less charming but more scientific explanation exists for why popcorn pops: Each kernel contains a small drop of water stored inside a circle of starch. As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand. At about 212 degrees, the water turns into steam and changes the starch inside the kernels into a superheated gelatinous substance. The kernel continues to heat to about 347 degrees. The pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch before finally bursting the hull open.

As it explodes, steam inside the kernel is released. The soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately and forming into the odd shape we know and love. A single kernel can swell to 40 to 50 times its original size.

Popcorn is a whole grain made up of three components: the germ, endosperm and pericarp (also known as hull). Besides tasting great, it has no additional additives or hidden ingredients and is non-GMO. It’s relatively high in fiber, gluten-free, naturally low in calories, contains no cholesterol and is virtually fat free.

Of the four most common types of corn — sweet, dent, flint and popcorn — only popcorn pops. Popcorn differs from other types of corn in that its hull has just the right thickness to allow it to — eventually — burst open.

Popcorn dates back thousands of years.

Biblical accounts of “corn” stored in the pyramids of Egypt are misunderstood. The “corn” from the Bible was probably barley. The mistake comes from a changed use of the word “corn,” which used to signify the most-used grain of a specific place.

In England, “corn” was wheat, and in Scotland and Ireland the word referred to oats. Since maize was the common American “corn,” it took that name and keeps it today.

It is believed that the first use of wild and early cultivated corn was popping. The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. Ranging from smaller than a penny to about 2 inches, the oldest Bat Cave ears are about 4,000 years old.

Popcorn was integral to early 16th century Aztec Indian ceremonies.

Bernardino de Sahagun wrote: “And also 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.”

In 1519, Cortes got his first sight of popcorn when he invaded Mexico and came into contact with the Aztecs. Popcorn was an important food for the Aztec Indians, who also used popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments on statues of their gods, including Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.

Writing of Peruvian Indians in 1650, the Spaniard Cobo said, “They toast a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.”

In South America, kernels of popcorn found in burial grounds in the coastal deserts of North Chile were so well preserved they would still pop even though they were 1,000 years old.

The use of the moldboard plow became commonplace in the mid-1800s and led to the widespread planting of maize in the United States.

Popcorn was very popular from the 1890s until the Great Depression. Street vendors used to follow crowds around, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks and expositions.

During the Depression, popcorn, at 5 or 10 cents a bag, was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived. An Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he’d lost.

Unlike other confections, popcorn sales increased throughout the Depression. A major reason was the introduction of popcorn into movie theaters and its low cost for both patron and owner. One theater owner actually lowered the price of his theatre tickets and added a popcorn machine. He soon saw huge profits.

The “talking picture” solidified the presence of movie theaters in the U.S. in the late 1920s. Many theater owners refused to sell popcorn in their theaters because they felt it was too messy. Industrious vendors set up popcorn poppers or rented storefront space next to theaters and sold popcorn to patrons on their way into the theater. Eventually, theater owners began installing popcorn poppers inside their theaters; those who refused to sell popcorn quickly went out of business.

During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops, which meant there wasn’t much sugar left in the United States to make candy. Thanks to this situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.

Popcorn went into a slump during the early 1950s when television became popular. Attendance at movie theaters dropped and with it popcorn consumption. When the public began eating popcorn at home, the new relationship between television and popcorn led to a resurgence in popularity.

Percy Spencer, of the Raytheon Manufacturing Corp., figured out how to mass-produce magnetrons, which were being used to generate microwaves for use in World War II. Looking for post-war applications of Raytheon technology, Spencer spurred the development of the microwave oven in 1946. Popcorn was key to many of Spencer’s experiments.

Microwave popcorn became available for the marketplace in the early 1980s.

Although popcorn is typically thought of as a snack food today, it was once a popular breakfast food. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popcorn was eaten just as we eat cereal today.

Long before the advent of the corn flake, Ella Kellogg enjoyed her popcorn ground with milk or cream. Although she discouraged in-between meal snacking, she urged others to eat popcorn at meals as popcorn was “an excellent food.” She understood, as her husband did, that popcorn was a whole grain. John Harvey Kellogg praised popcorn as being “easily digestible and to the highest degree wholesome, presenting the grain in its entirety, and hence superior to many denatured breakfast foods which are found in the market.”

Popcorn fascinated and particularly delighted the young, thus popcorn became increasingly popular around holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter and especially Christmas). Because of its low cost, popcorn was ideal for Christmastime decorations, food and gift giving.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popcorn balls were one of the most popular confections and often given as gifts. Their popularity spawned an industry of popcorn ball-making gadgets. Victorian families often decorated fireplace mantels, doorways and Christmas trees with ornate ornaments made from popcorn balls. And, by the turn of the century, most cookbooks featured at least one recipe.

Most U.S. popcorn is grown in the Midwest, primarily in Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri.

Harrison County is home to two popcorn businesses: Ramsey Popcorn Co. Inc. and Preferred Popcorn Co. LLC. Both sell their products locally, nationally and globally.

Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it’s popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.

One serving of popcorn can provide about 70% of an individual’s recommended daily intake of whole grain. Virtually fat free, it contains only 100 to 150 calories in a serving of five popped cups. Popcorn also contains a number of essential vitamins, including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins B6, A, E and K. A serving of popcorn contains about 8% of the daily value of iron, with lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Popcorn is a good snack for diabetics as it does not impact blood sugar levels. Additionally, the USDA Agricultural Research Service says “low GI diets have proven health benefits. They improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with type 1, as well as type 2, diabetes. Because they are slowly absorbed, they help in weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger. Fiber is good for diabetics because research suggests that it helps to control blood sugar levels by slowing gastric emptying.”

This first recipe is a more indulgent option.

Caramel pecan popcornCARAMEL PECAN CORN

10 cups freshly popped popcorn

2 cups pecan pieces

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1/4 cup light corn syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Spray a 15- by 10-inch baking

sheet with non-stick spray. Mix popcorn and pecans in large bowl. Combine brown sugar, butter and corn syrup in medium saucepan. Over low heat, stir mixture until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high and boil 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla extract and baking soda. Pour over popcorn and pecans, immediately stirring gently to coat. Pour mixture onto prepared baking sheet, spreading evenly. Bake for 1 hour in preheated oven. Cool completely. Break into pieces and store in air-tight container.

For a sweeter turn, this recipe offers a unique flavor blend of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

Chai tea popcornCHAI TEA POPCORN

12 cups popped popcorn

3 tablespoons melted butter

1 Chai tea bag, sliced open

1 teaspoon cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon

1 small pinch of salt

Place popcorn in a large bowl. Mix together the loose Chai

tea, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Drizzle popcorn with melted butter and sprinkle with Chai tea mixture.

For this recipe, a nutritional yeast is added, which adds a savory, cheesy-like flavor as an alternative to traditional cheese.

Chili lime popcornCHILI LIME POPCORN SNACK

1 quart popped popcorn

1 teaspoon nutritional yeast

1 teaspoon lime juice

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread popcorn on a baking

sheet; sprinkle yeast, lime juice, chili powder and salt over popcorn. Heat about 7 minutes and toss just before serving. Serve warm.

With the Chinese New Year starting Jan. 25, consider this recipe.

Chinese new year popcornCHINESE NEW YEAR MEDLEY

6 cups popped popcorn

2 cups Oriental rice cracker mix

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground ginger may vary to taste)

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sesame oil (may vary to taste)

Mix popcorn and rice cracker mix together in a large bowl.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, microwave butter on high until melted, about 20 seconds. Stir in soy sauce, ginger and oil. Drizzle over popcorn mixture; toss. Spread mixture on a baking sheet and bake in a 300-degree oven for 20 minutes, stirring once. Allow to cool. Serve or store in an air-tight container.

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