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By Tanya Joham
staff writer 

Popcorn: a kernel of truth


January 22, 2022

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Popcorn is one of those foods that we automatically associate with fun and having a good time. We correlate popcorn with carnivals, the circus and school festivals. I'm pretty sure there's an unwritten law that a movie theater cannot call itself a movie theater unless it offers mountains of buttery, crunchy popcorn at the concession stand.

I know I'm dating myself with this one, but who remembers standing on a chair to reach the stovetop and arguing with siblings about who could shake the Jiffy Pop pan over the heat? Watching the twisted aluminum covering balloon and swell with every pop was thrilling! Even today, that sound delights my inner child.

I don't think I'm alone in my nostalgic love of popcorn. Why else would Americans institute National Popcorn Day on January 19? It's been a holiday on the national calendar since 2005, but Illinoisans have been celebrating popcorn on a specified day each year since 1958. In fact, Illinois' official snack (yes, they have an official snack) is, you guessed it, popcorn!

The oldest known popcorn was found in a Mexican cave and is believed to be at least 5,000 years old. Ancient people, including Native Americans, used popcorn in a variety of recipes. For example, Peruvians, who have eaten popcorn for at least 1,000 years, ground it into a kind of flour. Some Native Americans used popcorn to make soup and beer. Contrary to popular legend, there is no historical evidence that Native Americans brought popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast.

To some Native Americans, popcorn connoted spiritual significance. They believed that each kernel literally housed a spirit. I would be interested to learn what they thought of the "old maid" kernels that resist popping. Ancient Aztecs also attached some religious meaning to popcorn, using the fluffy stuff to create necklaces and decorate headdresses that they wore during some of their sacred rituals.

If you're like me, you may have wondered how ancient people popped popcorn in the first place without burning it. One method was to heat sand in a fire. Next (although this step is unclear to me), they removed the sand from the heat, immediately stirring the popcorn kernels into the sand. I imagine that as the kernels exploded, at least some sand must have adhered to the popcorn, adding a gritty texture to the final product.

As a child, I read in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy," that if you have one glass filled to the brim with milk and another glass filled with popcorn, you can place every kernel of popcorn into the glass of milk without displacing any of the milk. To my delight, when I tried it, it actually worked! (I really didn't think it would.)

Here are some more random popcorn facts. The world's first popcorn popper was created near 300 A.D. Historians believe that Christopher Columbus brought popcorn back to Europe in the late 1400s. The first commercial popper made its debut in 1885, around the time that popcorn began to be a staple at carnivals. During this same period, people often ate popcorn with milk and sugar, the way we eat cereal today. In 1949, popcorn was banned from movie theaters because it was so noisy. The ban was about as successful as Prohibition. Thank goodness our local Hitching Post Theater is a staunch believer in popcorn for the masses.

See more fun popcorn trivia at


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