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Holly Ebel: You can’t stop the pop

August 22, 2018

If you were asked to name America’s most popular snack, you could probably answer in a nanosecond: Popcorn.

Right you are! We in the U.S. consume 17 billion quarts of popped corn every year, which works out to 68 quarts per person. You can buy it everywhere — in movie theaters, at sports events, fairs and carnivals. Sofa snackers munch it watching TV and many bars and restaurants offer it as a freebie.

Newt’s (downtown) goes through at least 5 pounds a day, and that is minor compared to other spots. Can you walk by Carroll’s Corn without buying some? I can’t, either.

Unlikely as it may seem, popcorn is also having its moment as a health food. Yes, really. One serving (one cup) is just 31 calories (before the butter). It is also high in fiber, antioxidants and Vitamin B and can help with digestion and lowering cholesterol.

In fact, popcorn is one of the healthiest snacks around. It’s also one of the most versatile, with any number of flavorings and seasonings enhancing its nutty flavor. Try a dusting of curry powder, garlic, sugar, chili powder or cinnamon, or mix it with other ingredients like nuts, pretzels, even chocolate chips.

Another thing in popcorn’s favor is that it is so inexpensive it’s almost a give-away. It’s also a big money maker for movie theaters. For every dollar spent on popcorn, it’s about 90 cents of pure profit. In fact, it’s said that more money is made on popcorn than tickets.

Have you ever wondered what makes those corn kernels pop? Each kernel has a hard outer shell and inside is a minuscule amount of moisture. As the kernel is heated, that moisture turns to steam. Since it can’t escape, the pressure builds up until the kernel finally explodes, virtually turning inside out.

What about those “old maids,” the unpopped kernels? Those tooth-breakers likely didn’t contain enough moisture to explode. As for the explosions, there are two basic shapes — snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is what you get at a movie concession because it is larger.

Popcorn has an interesting history, one going back thousands of years. In Mexico, for example, remnants of popcorn have been found that date to around 3600 BC. Fast forward to the 1820s, where popcorn was being enjoyed on the East Coast. Gradually its popularity grew, and by the 1840s it was being consumed around the country, with variations from region to region.

Its popularity is also closely tied to movie theaters. Originally theater owners were against selling popcorn to customers, thinking its aroma might be a distraction, among other reasons. Hawkers took advantage and sold bags up and down the aisles. Before long, vendors set up stands outside.

It was also the Depression and movies and popcorn were cheaper forms of entertainment. Realizing the profit potential, theater owners brought popcorn machines into their lobbies. That was the late 1930s. Can you imagine going into a movie theater now and not being greeted by that irresistible aroma? It’s part of the movie experience.

There was a time in the late ’40s and early ’50s when popcorn sales declined for some reason. That, however, changed almost overnight with the introduction of the microwave. Folks could have this snack within seconds without the fuss and mess. In fact, microwave popcorn is how most people buy it, which leads one to wonder if anyone makes it from scratch anymore. A basic stovetop recipe is 3 tablespoons to 1/2 cup oil, to 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels. The more oil adds extra crunch. There are also popcorn aficionados who will use half butter and half oil.

However you make it, either in the microwave or on the stovetop, it’s a great snack for everyone. That first slow pop, pop, pop, then a firestorm of kernels going wild. Then the aroma. Popcorn is an irresistible treat, wherever, however, whenever you have it.

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