Growing up, my mother used popcorn to garnish cream of tomato soup with a few popped kernels on top "to make it pretty." I thought everbody did that. All corn can be popped—yet only certain varieties that are small, have a hard outer shell, and white or yellow kernels of the flint type are deemed best. The moisture within must be heated to its pressure point so it can burst.
Yes, this is another treasure from Indigenous Americans. The oldest popped kernels were found in a bat cave in central New Mexico and also in Peru. Those in New Mexico are thought to be 5,600 years old.
The Aztecs in Mexico embraced popcorn so much it was/is used in some ceremonies such as the popcorn dance, where young women wear popcorn garlands and tassels as headgear. In another Aztec ceremony momochitl (this earliest word for popcorn in the Nahuatl language family).
About 300 A.D. a funeral urn was found depicting a Maize god wearing a popcorn headdress. To bless and wish departing Aztec fishermen good luck with much success, people sprinkled popcorn around the boats because they were thought to look like white flowers. Holding that thought, I’m reminded that the Inka used popcorn to decorate bodies for burial. The Inka called popcorn piscancalla. Much further north in the 1600s there were reports that the Iroquois were popping corn in a clay vessel and used it to make a soup. Meanwhile, further east in Plymouth, Massachusetts, it is said that after the so-called first Thanksgiving, Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, brought a bushel of popped corn to dazzle the newcomers.
These historic notes confirm that popcorn was widely utilized in Native America. (All this talk made me open a box of Lakota Foods microwave popcorn—really good!)
The spread of commercial popcorn in this country began in the early 1800s. It's popularity soared and many variations emerged. Cracker Jack is still a favorite, kettle corn, caramel popcorn, popcorn seasoned with all sorts of herbs and flavorings too. Popcorn’s appeal grew and grew especially in movie theaters where theater owners regarded it as a nuisance until the Depression, when the owners realized people needed an inexpensive treat they could afford. Now eating popcorn is nearly synonymous with watching movies. The top popcorn-producing states are Nebraska at number one, then Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio, together known as "the corn belt." It's interesting to note that today our highest export market is Mexico. This followed by China, Japan, South Korea, the UK and Russia. Another must-know fact is that pediatricians do not recommend giving popcorn to children under four, as it may be a choking hazard.
Popcorn Snack Mix
3 to 4 cups of popped corn
1 cup peanuts, roasted, shelled and lightly salted
1 cup walnuts or pecans, shelled and broken up
1 cup golden raisins OR craisins
Warm ¼ cup honey or molasses and drizzle on top of popcorn-nut mixture.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.