Citizens, behold the final entry in TFD’s week of heirloom recipes – we close out with the humble but totally delicious popcorn ball! The history of popcorn stretches back three thousand years, in fact.
As noted on whatscookingamerica.net:
Most of the world’s popcorn is grown in the Midwestern part of the United States – principally in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana where it can get mighty hot in the summer.
Although popcorn has been with us since pioneer times, it was not until 1890 that popcorn became important enough to be raised as a crop for market. Before that time, individual families raised their own popcorn or bought it from their neighbors. Since that time, popcorn has brought enough income to its growers to earn the name “prairie gold.”
Prehistory – The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave (a site known to have been occupied by cave dwellers practicing primitive agriculture three thousand years ago) of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950 by anthropologist Herbert Dick and botanist Earle Smith, Harvard graduate students.
They discovered layers of trash, garbage, and excrement, which had accumulated over two thousand years. In the trash were 766 specimens of shelled cobs, 125 loose kernels, 8 pieces of husks, 10 of leaf sheath, and 5 of tassels and tassel fragments. The deeper they dug, the smaller and more primitive the cobs, until they reached bottom and found tiny cobs of popcorn in which each kernel was enclosed in its own husk.
Among those prehistoric kernels, they found six that were partly or completely popped. These grains have been so well preserved that they would still pop. In fact, they took a few unpopped kernels and dropped them into a little hot oil to prove that they could still pop. They have been carbon dated to be about 5,600 years old.
16th Century – Hernando Cortes (1485-1547), Spanish explorer and conqueror of the Aztec Empire of Mexico, got his first sight of popcorn when he invaded Mexico and came into contact with the Aztec people. 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.
An early Spanish account by Father Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), Franciscan priest and researcher of the Mexican culture, of a ceremony honoring the Aztec gods who watched over fishermen read:
“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.”
17th Century – Early French explorers in the Great Lakes region reported that the Iroquois Indians popped popcorn in a pottery vessel with heated sand and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things.
Some historians suggest, but this theory has never been proved, that when the early English colonists held their first Thanksgiving celebration on October 15, 1621, an Indian named Quadequina brought an offering for the feast – a great deerskin bag of popped corn. The Pilgrims enjoyed this treat, which was to become a unique part of the American way of life. The early colonists called it popped corn, parching corn, and rice corn. Native Americans would bring popcorn snack to meetings with the English colonists as a token of goodwill during peace negotiations.
In American Indian folklore, some tribes were said to believe that quiet contented spirits lived inside of each popcorn kernel. When their houses were heated, the spirits would become angrier and angrier, shaking the kernels until the heat became unbearable, at which point the spirits would burst out of their homes and into the air in a disgruntled puff of steam.
Colonial housewives served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast (the first “puffed” breakfast cereal). Some colonists popped corn using a cylinder of thin sheet-iron that revolved on an axle in front of the fireplace like a squirrel cage.
19th Century – Popcorn popularly really began to ‘burst’ during the 1890s.
The first popcorn machine was invented by Charles Cretors of Chicago, Illinois in 1885. In order to test his machine, it was necessary for Charles to operate it on the street as the customer. He was issued a peddler’s license to use the machine on December 2, 1885.
Until then, poppers were made to sit in front of stores to attract attention. The huge, ponderous popcorn machine with its gasoline burner became a familiar part of the scent. Street vendors used to follow crowds around, pushing steam or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks, and expositions.
This practice continued up until the Depression years (1929-1939). Today much of the popcorn you buy at movies and fairs is popped in poppers made by the Cretors family.
20th Century – In 1914, Cloid H. Smith founded the American Pop Corn Company in the heart of corn country (Sioux City, Iowa) and launched America’s first brand name popcorn called Jolly Time. In 1925, he introduced Jolly Time in a can designed specifically for popcorn. To show his confidence in h is new package, he flagged the can with a “Guaranteed to Pop” statement. It was a bold statement in those days.
With the opening of movie theaters across the nation early in the 20th century, popcorn became a part of the new excitement. During the Depression years (1929-1939), popcorn was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.
There is a story about an Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed. He 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 had previously lost.
During World War II (1941-1945), sugar was sent overseas for American troops. This meant that there wasn’t much sugar left in the United States to make candy. Due to this unusual situation, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.
When television became popular in the 1950s, popcorn sales again made a sudden rise. As families started buying television sets, they were changing their life-styles and staying home more and eating popcorn as they watched television.
As for the delicious and rarely seen (at least today) popcorn ball, note this from American Eats, by Nelson Algren, published by University of Iowa Press, 1992:
There is a Nebraska legend that the popcorn ball is actually a product of the Nebraska weather.
It supposedly invented itself during the “Year of the Striped Weather” which came between the years of the “Big Rain” and the “Great Heat” where the weather was both hot and rainy.
There was a mile strip of scorching sunshine and then a mile strip of rain. On one farm, there were both kinds of weather. The sun shone on this cornfield until the corn began to pop, while the rain washed the syrup out of the sugarcane. The field was on a hill and the cornfield was in a valley.
The syrup flowed down the hill into the popped corn and rolled it into great balls with some of them hundreds of feet high and looked like big tennis balls at a distance. You never see any of them now because the grasshoppers ate them all up in one day on July 21, 1874.
Citizens, this heirloom recipe goes back to the early 20th century – I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! 😀
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