by Emily Kennedy
Corn, particularly in the United States, is a serious food. Upright and regimented, it’s often cased in bitter political implications and burdened by the very real issues of economies to sustain and mouths to feed.
On the contrary, popcorn, corn’s whimsical cousin, is not in the business of sitting still long enough to bother itself with anything but lighthearted aesthetics and salty trysts. Free from the duties of serious nutrition, popcorn’s a welcome break from a lifelong commitment to the meal.
See one of the earliest literary mentions of popcorn from Henry David Thoreau’s Concord, Mass. journals, dated January 1842: “I have been popping corn tonight, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a greater than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonias. For this little grace man has, mixed in with the vulgarness of his repast, he may well thank his stars.”
Somewhere between dense July heat and that January Massachusetts chill, there is the grace of autumn and its promise of respite. When the last swaths of summer cohorts leave the Island, and native islanders have their first chance in months to exhale, Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Farm starts to think about the popcorn.
Each year, on Columbus Day weekend, Rebecca and her husband Randy Ben David host their annual Popcorn Festival. For Rebecca, the festival is the perfect chance for people living on the Vineyard to take a much-needed break. And with that grand celebration comes a simpler goal: to fill everyone—animals included— up with popcorn.
“Everyone loves popcorn,” she said. “In the morning, the ducks and chickens are running around, gobbling it right up, and by the end of the day they all walk by like they just don’t see it.”
Popcorn may be one of the most universally beloved foods, but it’s also one of the oldest. The popcorn plant is derived from maize, or corn, which is believed to have been domesticated over centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses. So legend goes, the snack traveled from Mexico to South America; just last year, scientists found evidence of popcorn in Peru dating back over 6,700 years—almost 2,000 years earlier than was previously believed. The oldest found presence of popcorn in the United States was in Bat Cave, New Mexico, in 1950—the historiccobs, dating back 5,600 years, were only as large as a few centimeters long. Popcorn, it was believed, had been heated in clay pots as an occasional snack for centuries.
As one popcorn-focused archaeologist, with no trace of irony, notes, “the evolution of maize has been truly explosive.” In 1893, Chicago salesman Charles Cretor debuted the first patented popcorn steamer to the World’s Columbian Exposition— coincidentally, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the new world—and the modern American love story with popcorn truly began.
The first real boon in the snack’s popularity stems from the time of the Great Depression. Going to the movies had previously been a grand affair, and many theater owners refused to sell popcorn because it was considered too messy for their lush venues. In response, pop-up street vendors set up shop next to theaters, and no one, especially not the moviegoers, seemed to mind. Soon, movie theater owners, facing tough financial prospects and lower audience attendance, found they could both turn a profit and lure people to the movies if they lowered ticket costs and began to sell popcorn. The snack sold for as little as five to 10 cents a bag. During World War II, when all sugar surplus was sent overseas to the troops, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as they had previously.
Today, in true American form, popcorn has its own month (October), a Congress-enacted research institute (the Popcorn Board, in Chicago) and at least six Midwestern cities staking their claim as the Popcorn Capital of the World. And why not? Americans eat 16 billion quarts of popcorn each year (that’s roughly 51 quarts per person), and the snack still largely monopolizes the taste buds of moviegoers. Popcorn’s resurgence as a healthy, mostly-allergen-free and diet-friendly snack in a time of collapsing options doesn’t hurt, either.
So put on a movie and put some popcorn on the stove. Just take note from Rebecca Gilbert’s animals: neither man, nor fowl, can live on popcorn alone.