Written by Brent on July 21st, 2010

Ever since bright yellow, spicy, roasted corn soup was ladled over a sprinkling of popcorn in my bowl at a gourmet Indian restaurant, I have been thinking about popcorn in a whole new light, as food rather than as packaging material or a crunching nuisance spoiling my cinema experience. Jokes aside, some overzealous eco-minded retailers did try using popcorn as an alternative to Styrofoam. It turned out to be both a hazard and a disastrous idea.

Perhaps those bags of coloured popcorn we pelted each other with as kids led me to forget it is a food. Then again, some of the popcorn served at one of the big movie chains nearby, especially if it is the morning screening, really isn’t edible; it’s not even warm; I think they use the leftovers that stood out all night. Unlike me, Munchkin is someone who goes to the movies in order to eat popcorn. Fortunately, Munchkin will indelicately hoover through a tub before the trailers are over.

Popcorn is a food, a good one nutritionally speaking, and it has been eaten for thousands of years. We certainly like the smell. I wonder what that first Native American who heard and saw how with a resounding pop a little seed magically transformed into a white puff thought. There is evidence of early man popping corn in heated sand. The conquistadors found it among the Aztecs and the Peruvian Indians, where it was also used in sacred ceremonies and for decoration. Some people still thread garlands of popcorn and even use it as Christmas decor. The American colonists had popcorn with milk for breakfast.

Popcorn received its big boost during the Great Depression when mobile steam and gas-powered poppers first appeared. At between 5 and 10 cents a bag, it was one of the few affordable treats. Consumption trebled during the Second World War, with the scarcity of candy; sugar being reserved for the military maw. Then, in the 1980s, microwave popcorn was born offering an assortment of flavours and a fool-proof method of popping. Heating from the inside produces larger and tenderer flakes, and Munchkin enjoys standing with an ear to the microwave listening to the comestible fireworks inside.

The biggest consumers remain North Americans who annually consume about 200 cups for every man, woman and child, only a third of it at cinemas and stadiums. The Midwest produces a staggering 400 000 tonnes; consider that 30g makes 4 cups when popped. The fastest growing markets are Mexico, South Korea, Japan and China.

Remember when ready-to-eat popcorn (with flavours such as white cheddar or green onion) packaged like crisps became a brief craze in the 1990s? Today, on limited shelf space in our supermarkets, local brands retail at about R100 per kilogram; imports at R200 per kg; weigh that up against unpopped which is only R13, and for my money none compare to home-made.

Popcorn is currently outperformed by sales of corn chips and many other snacks, so sellers are turning to its health properties: high fibre, low calorie, carbohydrate rich, sodium and sugar-free. Yet the calories can be deceptive. Air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories per cup; oil-popped has 55; most microwave brands more. However, when lightly buttered the calories can rise up to 133. Some movie theatres in the United States use coconut oil to pop the corn and add margarine; one of these supersized buckets can have far more calories than a double burger. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, popcorn is the one corn product that is least likely to have any genetic engineered modifications, although plans are in the pipeline.

The maize used for popcorn is zea mays everta. The kernel can be red and even black (I’ve seen these ears in Peru), but only white and yellow are in commercial use. Sweet and field corn do not pop, and neither does popcorn straight after harvesting. It needs to dry out a bit, ideally says the science to a moisture content of 13.5%. It keeps well, apparently they have even managed to pop 3000-year-old corn; but don’t store yours in a refrigerator as it may dehydrate the kernels.

This brings us to what the industry calls popability. Water inside the kernel heats up and turns to steam; at 180°C it reaches a pressure of about 930 kPa expanding the endosperm until it explodes through the hull to form that familiar little white cloud of starch and protein polymers, blossoming to up to 40 times its original size. But overheated popcorn forms hard balls. The unpopped kernels (in good popcorn this should be under 2%), those deadly bits that threaten to break your teeth in the darkness of the movie house, are known (stupidly) as “old maids” by the industry. There are tricks to resurrect them after a few days.

The flakes are categorized as either the large, fluffy, irregular “butterfly” or the ball-shaped, denser “mushroom”. To my mouth, the butterfly flakes are much more satisfying, but the hardier mushroom shape is usually what you’ll find in packets of ready-popped corn as they survive better in packaging.

If you search “Chinese making popcorn” on You Tube you’ll see how roadside vendors in Beijing heat the kernels in a cast-iron cylinder rotated over an open brazier. When hammered open the corn all pops at once with a spectacular explosion flying into a large canvas sack.

In South Africa we have amakiepkiep, the multicoloured sweet township popcorn. It comes from kiep-kiep, the onomatopoetic expression for calling chickens, itself derived from the Dutch “kip” meaning fowl.

To make amakiepkiep, pop 500grams of popcorn; heat butter (4 tablespoons), sugar (600grams) and water (125ml) until the sugar is dissolved; divide this mixture into several batches and colour each with blue, red, green, yellow or orange or whatever food colourant takes your fancy. Pour over the popcorn in separate bowls, coating it and stirring; too much butter though and it will go soggy.

For the more adventurous, there are even recipes (I haven’t tried any of them) where popcorn is ground finely in a food blender and used to make popcorn bread (with mielie meal), or muffins (with sugar and flour and almonds)or even used in meatloaf. Popcorn can be made into a crust for macaroni and cheese, or with peanuts to encrust deep fried Thai chicken.

If those recipes aren’t funny enough, let me conclude with the use of popcorn in humour. Archbishop Fulton J Sheen is quoted as having said, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”

To visit the heartland of popcorn you could visit the Popcorn Festival, next month, August 12 to 15, 2010, in Van Buren, Indiana, USA (it has been going since 1973) or join the many activities at the 30th anniversary of the Marion Popcorn Festival, September 9 to 11, 2010 in Marion, Ohio.

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 16 July 2010.


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