Have you ever wondered how some foods got discovered? Take for instance popcorn. How did anyone ever learn that by placing a certain strain of corn near heat would make it explode?
I was thinking this the other day as I waited for a batch to pop. My intention was to concoct one of my favorite snacks, Microwave Caramel Corn, after I came across the recipe in my trusty recipe box while looking for my mom’s popcorn ball recipe. Popcorn balls were a favorite treat this time of year when we were kids. It seemed like every weekend during the autumn months we would help mom make a batch of these.
But the caramel corn recipe caught my eye and I pulled it from the line up. The card the ingredients are printed on is testimony to this treat’s popularity. The recipe is old and the card is blotched with stains from much use and yet, it has been quite some time since I made this favorite. That was about to change.
So, as the kernels started to bang against the lid of my popcorn pot, I got to wondering how this popular confection came to be and who exactly started popping it. Come to find out popcorn has quite a history. For instance it was part of Native American ceremonies for centuries before it ever became known as a food. It was popped and then strung on long blades of grass and worn as ornamentation to honor the Creator for his bountiful gifts. It was also discovered in archeological digs dating back to 3600 B.C. in New Mexico so it has been around for centuries.
Its modern history is even more fascinating. Most of this crop is grown today in the states of Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana. It was not until 1890 that it was grown commercially in the United States and brought enough income to its growers to be dubbed “prairie gold.” (Just ask Orville Redenbacher.)
Popcorn really took off after a man named Charles Cretor of Chicago, Ill., invented a mobile machine to pop it on the streets in 1885. Street vendors would push these machines, which were powered by steam or gas, after crowds at fairs, expositions and parks creating a delicious aroma. Today the Cretor name lives on and many of the machines used to pop corn at movies and fairs continue to be manufactured by his descendents.
In 1893 at the World’s Fair in Chicago two brothers , Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, used popcorn as a base for a unique concoction. They covered their popped corn with molasses. However, customers didn’t think much of it due to the fact it made their fingers so sticky. So Louis came up with a formula that when poured on the popcorn was crispy, yet dry, and today we know this as Cracker Jack.
When movies took off after the turn of the century popcorn really found its niche. It was economical to purchase and became a mainstay, even to this day, of movie going crowds across the United States. As the years have passed machines to pop the corn have developed for home use and in the early 1980s microwave popcorn became popular. In fact, surveys suggest the number one use for microwaves is to pop popcorn. Today Americans eat 16 billions quarts of popcorn a year!
I guess it really doesn’t matter how popcorn got discovered but I sure would have liked to have been sitting around the campfire when that first kernel popped itself inside out. Native Americans must have been amazed at this phenomenon when it happened. But I’m glad they saw the advantages of keeping this crop as part of their lifestyle, whether they wore it or consumed it. At least that’s what I was thinking as I sat down to a bowl of my freshly made microwave popcorn the other day-a treat that has truly withstood the test of time.
Microwave Caramel Corn
16 cups of popcorn
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1 stick butter
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
Place popped corn in brown paper bag. Microwave brown sugar, corn syrup and butter until all is melted, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Mix in baking soda and vanilla then pour over popped corn in bag. Place in microwave for about 30 seconds then spread out on a baking sheet to cool. Separate and store in an airtight container-if it lasts that long.
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup margarine
2 tsps. cold water
2 5/8 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup marshmallows
5 quarts plain popped popcorn
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the corn syrup, margarine, cold water, confectioners’ sugar and marshmallows. Heat and stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Carefully combine the hot mixture with the popcorn, coating each kernel. Grease hands with vegetable shortening and quickly shape the coated popcorn into balls before it cools. Wrap with cellophane or plastic wrap and store at room temperature.