Popcorning

Some 8,000 years ago, a hungry inhabitant of Central America decided to cook some seeds they found in the grass. Huddled close to the fire, eyes scanning the surrounding darkness for predators, this man or woman must have been eager to eat their meager meal warming on the rocks.

Then it happened.

Suddenly the seeds began to explode with a force so great they were flung into the air. The frightened human lurches back, heart thumping, brain furiously racing to comprehend the situation.

When the seeds cease their show, the still hungry human carefully approaches the fire and tenderly picks up the scattered white objects. Sniffing them, one is placed in the mouth, quickly followed by all the other magic seeds. “I could eat these for many passes of objects in the sky,” the satisfied human ponders, and makes note to find more seeds the next day.

And thus (perhaps), humanity was introduced to popcorn.

Since that auspicious day, popcorn has swept across the globe, though it has made no greater inroad than in the entertainment industry. Sure, you’ll take a lady out for dinner and a movie, but what is a movie without a crunchy snack?

In 1885, popcorn experienced it’s first surge in the United States with the invention of a portable steam cooker. These would be found at fairs, circuses, and street corners. Movie theaters, however, were no place for this messy snack.

Prior to the Great Depression, theater goers tended to be a sophisticated bunch. Silent movies were inaccessible to many Americans because watching a film meant reading a film. The theaters themselves were ornate with fine carpets and elaborate furnishings. Theater owners wanted nothing to do with the cheap snack that could easily be ground under unknowing feet.

By the time 1930 rolled around, films had sound and the Depression gave folks a lot of time on their hands. That year, 90 million Americans visited the movie theaters, weekly. Those mobile popcorn carts planted themselves outside theaters and patrons shelled out between 5 and 10 cents for a bag. Even though the crunchy treats were banned, some baggy pants or a tall hat easily disguised the bulk. Finally theaters realized it would behoove them to welcome popcorn sellers inside, and thus the modern movie theater popcorn industry began.

Here’s a vintage popcorn, soda, and coffee (?) ad. The background music is worth watching it alone.

Still hungry? Read more in Smithsonian Magazine‘s fantastic write-up on popcorn in America.

photo credit: Library of Congress