Kernels of truth: A brief history of popcorn

TIFF is here and popcorn machines are running full-bore. We look at the origins of everyone’s favourite movie snack
By Corey Mintz - Published on Sep 07, 2017
Popcorn became a movie-theatre staple during the Great Depression. (clubfoto/iStock)

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In Ethiopia, popcorn is served with fresh-roasted coffee. In China, it’s street food, cooked over fire inside a cannon that shoots it into a waiting bag (you have to see the video). In North America, it’s so closely associated with movies that a type of film — the kind that doesn’t require much thought to understand — is known as a popcorn movie.

When I was a kid, we felt high-class for owning a popper. The machine would often overshoot the waiting bowl and spit popcorn onto the floor. And the little butter tray usually failed to melt the topping. But the magic of having the movie snack at home, when VCRs were also new, was to us the other side of the velvet rope. The specialness ended when microwaves made it possible to cook popcorn over a commercial break.

Today, it astounds people to see me cook popcorn in a regular pot on the stove. That’s probably because most people don’t know what popcorn is, where it comes from, how it’s made, or whether it’s good or bad for us.

To start, popcorn is not magic, nor is it the result of some chemical/industrial process. It’s a variety of maize, grown on farms here in Ontario, with harder kernels than sweet corn (the kind you eat on the cob) or feed corn (the kind cows eat from a trough). The outer hull of each kernel protects a small amount of moisture. When heated, the hull ruptures with a pop and the interior starch expands and cools instantly.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Popcorn has been with us a long time; it was domesticated 5,000 years ago. The earliest known specimens of maize, found in a cave in New Mexico, contained fully popped kernels. As a snack, popcorn has been sold commercially (originally as “pearl” or “nonpareil”) since the early 19th century. It became a movie-theatre staple during the Great Depression.

Popcorn sales boomed through the ’50s and ’60s, exploded in the ’70s and ’80s (likely due to the retail market for home consumption), and then started to slump in the early ’90s.

For a farmer, growing popcorn is no different from growing other types of corn, requiring similar amounts of fertilizer and water. The only post-harvest processing is the shelling, cleaning, and drying of the kernels.

Blair Townsend, a third-generation tobacco farmer in Walsingham, Ontario, started growing popcorn 36 years ago, switching his crops over to it entirely in 2007.

His product, distributed as Uncle Bob’s Popping Corn, is available at grocery stores big and small across the province, as well as at some independent movie theatres — the George Cinema in Elora, the Kingsway in Toronto, and the Princess in Waterloo, to name a few.

He says there’s no possibility that the major theatres use Canadian-grown popcorn: the chains are traditionally tied to large producers in the Midwest that can consistently supply the  requisite volume.

“We can grow just as good quality corn here,” Townsend says. “But because it’s a much, much, much, much larger scale down there, their prices are as good as mine, or possibly even better.”

Cineplex won’t say where their popcorn comes from (though a 2007 Toronto Star article claimed the company was buying 5 million pounds a year from the States) or what kind of oil they use (except to say it’s canola-based). They do confirm their butter is all Lactantia.

I worked at a Cineplex theatre in 1993. Back then, there were four sizes of popcorn and four sizes of butter. We were encouraged to upsell by pushing a large butter with a medium popcorn. There was a motivational sales slogan taped to our side of the soda dispensers: "MY BUTTER SALES WILL BE 150%."

(With no commission to incentivize me, I gave theatregoers as much butter as they wanted before their screenings of Jurassic Park or Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)

At the TIFF Bell Lightbox, headquarters and home theatre of the Toronto International Film Festival, the popcorn comes from Popweaver, based in Indiana.

They use clarified butter for topping (I’m old enough to remember a period in the 1980s when some movie theatres used a mysterious non-dairy “topping,” prompting their competitors to advertise “real butter”).

Statistics Canada doesn’t track popcorn production or sales; those figures are tallied as part of a broader snack-food category. But anecdotally, we eat so much popcorn that microwaves are manufactured with a popcorn setting.

On its own, popcorn is a whole-grain food containing almost no fat and a good amount of fibre. A one-cup serving, according to a trusted news source (the U.S. Popcorn Board), contains 4 per cent of your recommended daily dietary fibre intake.

But no one in civilized history has ever limited their snacking to one cup of unsalted, unbuttered popcorn. In the real world, we cook it in oil, douse it in butter, and eat it literally by the bucket.

A regular-size bag of buttered popcorn at Cineplex contains 840 calories, 59 grams of fat, and 19.5 grams of salt. Those, perhaps, are not reasonable figures. But then, popcorn is not about reason. And like cars, or Taylor Swift, or capitalism, there’s not much we could learn about popcorn that would make us break up with it.

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