Ron Baldwin

Author Ron Baldwin writes about America’s timeless love of popcorn.

Looking back on the last nearly two years of fighting the COVID-19 virus and each other over the vaccines and masks and shutdowns, one thing is clear: in the face of the pandemic, most people have turned every night into Movie Night. It’s the most American of responses.

With the boom in online streaming platforms and subscribers, some movie companies are creating content that is specifically designed for streaming and never intended for theatrical release.

Two things are essential for a successful movie night; a movie or two, obviously, but what’s the second thing we think of? Popcorn!

According to industry reports, microwave popcorn sales have increased 50% and raw popcorn 70% since the beginning of the pandemic.

Popcorn has been with us a long time. Scientists believe that popcorn has been cultivated for around 9,000 years but the oldest viable popcorn, found in Peru, is 6,700 years old. Since then, popcorn has been enjoyed by nearly all Americans both native and immigrant far and wide.

Until the 20th century, Americans mainly ate their popcorn as breakfast cereal, with milk and sweetener. Chicago entrepreneur Charles Cretors is credited with driving the adoption of popcorn into the mass consumption era.

This isn’t the first time Americans have embraced the humble snack in times of upheaval. During the depression of 1893-1897 Cretors’ popcorn wagons began to appear on the streets of American cities, most prominently near theaters. At five cents a box/bag, it was cheap enough for everyone and readily filled empty bellies. The flu epidemic of 1918 again saw a jump in popcorn consumption as people stayed away from public places but still enjoyed the snack at home.

By the time of the stock market crash of 1929 popcorn had already become the snack enjoyed most by Americans at movie theaters. Theater patrons gobbled the stuff by the barrel. During this depression popcorn gained even greater popularity as an inexpensive snack. The crop kept some farmers in business, while others were failing. World War II would cement popcorn as America’s most popular salty snack. During the war, due to sugar rations, snacks were limited, so Americans ate three times as much popcorn as before the war.

The countertop microwave oven came into wide use in the 1970s and microwave popcorn appeared in 1981. Americans responded by popping more popcorn than ever as producers made their products easy to prepare, in disposable bags with all the goodies built-in. By the mid-1980s Americans splurged on $250 million in popcorn.

Enter Orville Redenbacher. In the mid-1960s the food scientist and farmer and his partner developed a hybrid popcorn they called Snowflake. It proved to be the future of the popcorn industry. This variety popped up twice as large as the varieties Americans were used to. His brand of popcorn, mass marketed, drove the industry for years and other producers took note. Today, over half of the microwave popcorn sold is the Snowflake hybrid.

The air popper was a big trend through the ‘80s and ‘90s but now populate thrift stores. The newest trend in man’s long history with the grain is pre-popped products. The population has grown tired of preparing popcorn and has embraced pre-popped, packaged products like Skinny Pop and Smartfood. This segment of the industry is growing fast. Industry leaders say that flavored popcorn is the growth trend for at least a couple of years.

Anyone who is a true popcorn fanatic like me will brook no discussion of these modern products as being in any way like the product made by their favorite old, messy methods that bring forth the Golden Bounty of the Corn Gods.

For the fanatics, it’s a whole ritual. My college roommate even wore special ceremonial black ninja pajamas when it was time for popcorn. What a sight.

I still maintain that the best way to enjoy this ancient food is the ancient way, over an open fire. My basket popper is a rusty thing of beauty but there are still new models available.

The best thing about popcorn is sharing. Walk into a room with a bowl of popcorn and your popularity goes way up.

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