What makes popcorn pop?

By: Robert Thomson

Ever wonder how popcorn pops? The answer is simple: water - or rather, steamed water. Each kernel of corn has a hollow of moisture and it is this moisture that becomes steamed when heated. Pressure from the steam builds in the enclosed kernel until the kernel "pops" and becomes popped corn, or as we familiarly know it, popcorn. Popcorn isn't a recent invention as many people believe. Archeologists have found evidence that corn plants were cultivated in Mexico's central plateaus as far back as 2,500 B.C. Medicine men from the ancient Aztecs heated corn kernels in ceremonial fires, then watched which way the kernel popped to determine the future.

They wore ceremonial necklaces of popcorn dedicated to the god Tialoc, who was the god of goodwill and maize (corn). Peruvian Indians also used the treat in their ceremonies and dress, which was noted by explorer Cortez in his travels. Corn might have stayed regional had not Christopher Columbus brought back kernels to Europe, where the crop was cultivated and eventually became a food staple. By the time the Pilgrims came to American shores, popcorn had also become a staple among Native American tribes and was one of the foods the Wampanoag tribe brought to the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

As popped corn became more in demand, someone was bound to find a way to make its production easier for public consumption. In 1885, American inventor Charles Cretors produced the prototype of the first popcorn machine. The machine was designed primarily as a peanut roaster with a top shelf to produce popcorn. It wasn't until 1893, however, that Cretors produced a fully dedicated popcorn machine, which he introduced at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. This more sophisticated prototype was a mobile, steam-driven machine that awed the attendees.

Popcorn as a snack grew especially popular during the early 1900s.Vendors hauled poppers on horse-drawn buggies and sold their treats at state fairs and carnivals. By the time the great Depression hit, the reasonably-priced snack was one the few "luxuries" that poor families could afford at five cents a bag. During WWII, popcorn replaced candy consumption in the U.S. as most of the sugar produced was sent overseas to the troops. Through the years, the buttery, tasty treat eventually became a familiar offering at movie theaters, carnivals and amusement parks. With the evolving popularity of popcorn came the evolution of the popcorn machine. Newer models are made for any venue, public or private. Home theaters often feature smaller models that mimic those found in larger movie theaters. Nostalgia buffs can find antique-styled popcorn machines reminiscent of those early popcorn wagons.

Today's popcorn machines basically operate the same way, no matter the style. The enclosed part of the machine is called the kettle and is where the corn kernels are popped. Inside the kettle, at the top, is a pan and at the bottom is a warmer. Before the machine is turned on, seasonings are added to the pan for flavoring. Oil is also introduced to heat the kernels faster and more evenly. When the machine is turned on, the pan heats up and a small paddle circles the pan; without this motion, the kernels will not pop evenly and some of the kernels will burn. The popped kernels overflow the pan and falls to the base where they are kept warm for serving.

Not every corn type will pop. Some varieties do not have the necessary amount of moisture to "explode". Corn is grown worldwide, but particularly in the U.S., Argentina and the southern region of France. Farmers cultivate particular strains of corn specifically to have the requisite water that will make the kernels pop when heated. As long as they do, the world will always have popcorn. That's good news for those who like a tasty snack with their movies.

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