What would a movie be without...

It's fluffy and white and quite pop-ular. In fact, Americans consume some 17 billion quarts of it every year. (That's about 54 quarts per person.) Have you figured out what it is? Popcorn!

Even our ancestors enjoyed this corny treat: Scientists have found popcorn kernels in bat caves of New Mexico and burial grounds in Peru that are thousands of years old. And some of the kernels still pop!

To celebrate National Popcorn Poppin' Month in October, we've compiled some fun history and trivia about this traditional American snack:

Popcorn fun facts

Early native Americans threw kernels directly into the fire or into heated sand. Once the corn popped, they sifted it out and pounded it into a fine, powdery meal. Later the popcorn was mixed with water and eaten.

• American colonists mixed ground popcorn with milk and ate it for breakfast. People enjoyed popcorn pudding, also made from ground popcorn. By the 1840s, popping corn had become a common recreational activity. Shortly after World War II, a shortage of baking flour forced breadmakers to substitute ground popcorn for up to 25 percent of wheat flour.

• In the 1870s, popcorn was a common item sold in grocery stores and at concession stands. Charles Cretors introduced the first mobile popcorn machine at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

• In 1945, an engineer named Percy Spencer accidentally discovered that microwave radio signals could be used to cook foods. His experiments with popcorn led, in part, to the development of the microwave oven.

Popcorn at the movies

The "talking pictures" cemented the future of movie theaters in America in the late 1920s. But many theater owners refused to sell popcorn because they thought it was too messy. To meet the demand for snacks at the movies, popcorn vendors set up nearby.

Eventually, theater owners gave in. Those who began selling popcorn inside their theaters won more business; those who refused quickly went out of business.

During the Depression of the 1930s, 5-cent and 10-cent bags of popcorn were one of few luxuries that families could afford. Unlike other snacks, popcorn sales increased, mainly because popcorn was introduced at movie theaters.

How does popcorn pop?

Popcorn is considered a whole grain and, like other maizes (or corns), it's a member of the grass family. Of the six types of corn - pod, sweet, flour, dent, flint, and popcorn - only popcorn pops. Most popcorn is grown in "corn belts" throughout the Midwest.

Popcorn kernels contain a small amount of water stored within a circle of soft starch that is surrounded by a hard, outer casing, or hull. This thick outer layer allows pressure to build inside.

When popcorn is heated, the water expands, creating pressure inside. Eventually the casing gives way. The kernels explode and pop, allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernels inside out.

Recipe: Popcorn balls

3 quarts (12 cups) popped popcorn, unsalted
1 (1-pound) package marshmallows
1/4 cup butter or margarine

Place popped popcorn in a large bowl. In a large saucepan, cook and stir marshmallows and butter over low heat until melted and smooth. Pour over popcorn, tossing gently to mix well. Cool five minutes. Butter hands well and form mixture into 2-1/2-inch balls. Makes about 14 balls.

Source: The Popcorn Board, www.popcorn.org

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