After realizing while doing last week’s column that I’d gone my whole life without knowing that locusts are a type of grasshopper, I decided to be more alert and ask myself questions that might need exploring.
So, while eating popcorn with Elise at a local establishment, I got to wondering, do all corns pop? What makes popcorn pop? Who first discovered popping corn?
So, I picked an ear of field corn, with hard kernels like popcorn, and considered putting some in a pan with a little oil, heating it up, and seeing if it popped. But, after reading a bit about popcorn, I figured I could believe what I read and avoid either smelling up my house or burning it down.
That is because, from all sources I scoured, only one type of corn, Zea mays everta, will pop. From what I understand, Zea mays is a subspecies of Maize, with everta being a variety of Zea mays. However, I will gladly accept clarification on this from anyone, because delineating the scientific naming of corn was more difficult than trying to sort out all that is going on with our government besides governing.
I did learn, however, that the origination of popcorn dates back thousands of years. It apparently was first used by cultures in Mexico, and in Central and South America. It probably reached the U.S. about a thousand years ago, perhaps with Pueblo Indians. Originally it was just cooked and popped over a fire. The first popcorn machine was invented in 1885, with many to follow and flood the market today.
Some popcorn isn't P.C.
After reading a bit on popcorn, my next source was calling my friend Kerwin Englehart. He and his wife, Doris, rarely went without popcorn at any of the hundreds of sporting events they attended following his retirement as Rochester Public Schools Athletic Director. In addition, Kerwin and Doris cook popcorn at home using a Stir Crazy popper with a little oil, claiming it "makes fewer old maids than microwave popping in a paper bag."
Although not sure the phrase "Old Maids" is politically correct, it seems to still be in use, so I decided to try to see how the two are related. The only explanation I could find was a site which stated, "Unpopped kernels, supposedly like unmarried women who once were called ‘old maids’, refuse to join in the dance of life, to bloom into fulfillment as their aerated selves, to follow the path taken by the great majority, their livelier companions." Given that explanation, I guess I am surprised the phrase is still used.
Undoubtedly, the real Rochester expert on popcorn is Pat Carroll, 25-year owner of Carroll’s Corn, whom I was fortunate to be able to catch up with recently. I first knew Pat as a local swim coach when my daughter, Jenna, was involved in that sport.
A hot market
Pat tells me he was looking for another occupation beside part-time teaching and coaching, and decided to go to the Cities and "see what businesses were there that weren’t in Rochester." He walked skyways and found popcorn providers, realizing he "could get started with very little money" and jumped in.
Pat gets much of his different varieties of popcorn from growers in Iowa and Illinois, and assumes "soils there must be a bit better for popcorn than Minnesota soil." He goes through about 150 pounds of kernels a day, until the upcoming holiday season, and then jumps up closer to half a ton, running machines 24/7 to keep up with demand, which also keeps a very fresh product on the shelves.
On the scientific side of why this variety of corn pops, it seems the hull of popcorn can withstand higher pressures than other types of corn. This allows the moisture trapped in the heart of the kernel more time to build up steam when heated. With pressure reaching around 135 pounds per square inch, the kernel "pops" open into a fluffy edible morsel.
Popcorn is fairly healthy for us, being 100% whole grain, and rich in fiber. It is low in sugars, and if one limits, or eliminates, adding butter, which can bump a big tub of movie popcorn up to 1,000 calories, it is low in calories. Not adding salt is also recommended. I can do without butter, but definitely like the salt.
I probably don’t come near the U.S. per-person average of 51 quarts of popped corn consumed each year, but undoubtedly many people, like Kerwin and Doris, consume enough to offset my meager consumption. Matter of fact, nationwide we consume enough popped corn to fill the Empire State Building almost 20 times. So, enjoy your popcorn, and go easy on the butter and salt.