By Brandie Piper
National Popcorn Day is the perfect time to indulge in this popular treat and learn more about its history.
Millions of acres of corn grow in fields throughout the Midwest. Ninety-nine percent of corn grown in the U.S. is field corn, which is planted on about 90 million acres each year. Field corn is used for livestock feed, ethanol, and ingredients in our food. Less than 1 percent of corn grown in the United States is sweet corn, which is the tasty stuff we eat off the cob throughout the summer.
Popcorn, known also by the scientific name Zea mays everta, grows on even fewer acres, but is a popular North American snack. According to The Popcorn Board, Americans consume 13 billion quarts of popcorn each year.
Although the origins of National Popcorn Day are not known, the oldest ears of popcorn ever discovered were about 4,000 years old and found in west central New Mexico in the mid-20th century. In the late-1800s and early-1900s, popcorn was a popular breakfast food. It was eaten the same way we eat cereal today – with milk or cream, and sometimes mixed with berries.
During the Great Depression, the low cost of popcorn boosted its popularity as a snack in the United States, and it became an affordable gift to give during the holidays and used for decorating. When it was introduced to movie theaters, popcorn sales soared.
Popcorn grows similarly to field and sweet corn. It grows in an area of the Midwest called the Corn Belt: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio. But there is one big difference: tassels on the husks of popcorn are floppier than the tassels on field and sweet corn.
The Popcorn Board says scientists breed popcorn plants to have strong stalks, desirable grain color, and to fully pop. The seeds are planted each spring, and typically sprout from the ground in 10 days. Popcorn plants grow to about eight feet tall and produce ears of corn, just like sweet corn and field corn. Kernels are produced after the plants have pollinated.
When a black residue forms on the kernels, the popcorn cobs are ready to be harvested because they are no longer getting nutrients from the plant. The plants are typically harvested with a combine.
How popcorn pops
The kernels on the ears of popcorn have a moisture content of 16 percent to 20 percent when they’re harvested. This allows the kernels to fill with steam when they are heated to about 400 degrees. The steam causes pressure to build inside the kernel until it pops and turns inside out. Popcorn is the only type of corn kernel with this unique ability.
In honor of National Popcorn Day, take a minute to appreciate this versatile treat that can be enjoyed with sweet or salty toppings.