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By Nina Furstenau
Popcorn, its exuberance is to be envied, or, is the popped form just evidence of desperation? Either way, James Patterson in The Angel Experiment enthused, “Popcorn for breakfast! Why not? It's a grain. It's like, like, grits, but with high self-esteem.”
I’ve become intrigued by this lively kernel. Missouri is among the states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio—that provide most of the popcorn for the world. In the United States, we eat about 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually. That’s nearly 68 quarts per man, woman and child.
I don’t hold up my end of this consumption. So that means someone out there is really eating a lot of popcorn. Even though I’m a popcorn slacker, I become quick fingered when a bowl or movie bucket of buttered morsels is within reach. It’s the yin yang of snacks: no interest/can’t keep out of the bowl. Intrigued by this tiny kernel that can cause such temptation; I looked into corn and the popping of such and found that the Kennebeck’s of Trenton, and their company K&W Popcorn Inc., are members of the Popcorn Institute and Federal Popcorn Board. I immediately visualized board members discussing the best way to pop corn while strapped to their seats in an effort to keep from leaping about.
But at K&W they take popcorn seriously. They have certified non-gmo popcorn as well as organic and non-organic kernels, segregated by variety. Here’s the kicker: all varieties are test popped while in storage. Is it just me, or do warehouses with kernels erupting out of storage boxes come to mind?
We have history with this kernel in the New World. The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. The Bat Cave ears are estimated at about 4,000 to 5,600 years old, depending on the source. Then, folklore has it that Europeans coming to North America were met by Native Americans with popcorn headdresses and necklaces. A bag of popcorn was brought to the first Thanksgiving dinner, according to www.popcorn.com, and, Native Americans made soups with popcorn as an ingredient.
How does it pop exactly? According to the National Agricultural Library, a kernel of popcorn contains a small amount of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel's hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water expands, building pressure. Eventually, the outer layer gives way, causing the popcorn to explode. As it explodes, the soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and bursts, turning the kernel inside out. The steam inside the kernel is released, and the popcorn is popped, hot and ready to eat.
There’s a more magical way of thinking of the process imbedded in this Native American story: quiet spirits live inside each kernel of popcorn. They grow angry if their houses are heated and the hotter their homes become, the angrier they become, shaking the kernels. Finally, when it becomes too uncomfortable they burst out of their homes and into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.
Exuberance or desperation? You decide.