Popcorn: Indians threw it in the fire, today we pop it with oil

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Popcorn is the favorite snack food of families all over America. We eat it at the movies, ball parks, zoos, and the circus. Yet a lot of it - about 60 percent - is consumed right at home.

Indians in Mexico were popping corn in clay pots long before the Spanish explorers came to America. Christopher Columbus found the natives of the New World popping and eating corn.

What the Indians did at first was to slide an ear of corn onto the end of a long, pointed stick and hold it over the fire. This would cause the kernels to pop off the cob in all directions. Some of the kernels, however, were lost in the fire.

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Another way was to throw the kernels directly into the fire. When the kernels burst, the popped corn would jump out of the fire and onto the ground where it could be picked up.

Popcorn was served at the first American Thanksgiving, according to tradition. An Indian named Quadequina brought a big deerskin bag of it as his ''hostess present.'' In colonial times, Indians often brought popcorn to peace negotiations with the settlers.

Soon the colonists were raising patches of it in their gardens, and this variety of Indian corn with small ears and hard outer shell grew in popularity.

In 1885 Charles Cretors of Chicago invented the first popping machine, which was steam-powered. He also devised the wet popper - popping the corn in oil. Traveling salesmen began selling Cretor's poppers, and the popcorn business was on its way.

Popcorn doesn't contain sugar like many snack foods. It's also economical. It takes only a half-cup of popcorn kernels to fill a four-quart popper. This means , including the oil and salt, you can make enough popcorn to feed the whole family for about 30 cents.

Have you ever wondered what it is that causes those kernels to burst into popcorn? There's a natural moisture in the kernels which, when the popcorn is heated, turns into steam. However, the outer coat of the kernel is so tough and watertight that the steam is trapped inside. The pressure from the trapped steam builds up until suddenly the kernels explode. They turn inside out and puff up to many times their original size.

Keep your popcorn in an airtight container to preserve the moisture content. If your kernels have lost their zip, the chances are some of the moisture has been lost. Pour them into an airtight pint jar and add 1 teaspoon of water. Shake the container several times a day for two or three days before using.

Americans consume 383 million pounds of popped corn each year. Those living in Minneapolis/St. Paul, however, are the champion popcorn eaters of the world. They eat four pounds of popcorn per person each year. The national average is two pounds a year for every man, woman, and child.

There are a lot of things you can do with popcorn to change the taste. Here is a recipe you might want to try. Caramel Corn 3 quarts popped popcorn 1/4 cup light corn syrup 1/4 pound margarine or butter 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)

In a 2 1/2-quart saucepan, combine corn syrup, butter, salt, and brown sugar. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Let the mixture boil hard until it reaches the hard ball stage (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in baking soda. Pour immediately over popcorn in a large kettle or roasting pan. Stir gently until all kernels are coated. Put in oven and bake at 250 degrees F. for 1 hour, stirring two or three times during baking. Turn into a buttered baking pan. Spread apart and allow to cool completely. Break apart and store in tightly covered container. Makes 3 quarts.

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