The perfect formula
By: Kevin Holten, The Dickinson Press
If you’re like me, you’ve never really investigated why a match burns, a bulb lights, water crystallizes, a vacuum sucks, a horn blows, the sun warms, your wife hates football, politicians lie and you only want what you can’t have. And yet perhaps even more embarrassing is having to admit that you don’t really know why popcorn pops.
Obviously a metamorphosis must take place on par with that which transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly, a tadpole into a frog, maggots into flies, sprouts into trees, cows into burgers, high school football captains into pot bellied couch potatoes and homecoming queens into desperate cougars.
And yet, in researching the subject, I discovered that popcorn is much more than just an evening snack and a headache for he or she who sweeps the theater floor. Because, in reality, it is also a prime example of the precariousness of life and how much we take that precious commodity for granted.
You see, the amount of moisture in a popcorn kernel must be very close to 13.5%, no more or less, when it is heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or the steam inside will not create just the right amount of pressure to explode and turn the kernel inside out. And if the kernel is cracked or damaged in any way, and let’s steam escape or prevents the pressure from building, you’ll be pouring melted butter on Cheerios or lutefisk rather than your favorite late-night movie snack.
So, you ask, if it’s the water inside that makes it pop, why don’t other grains, like wheat and rice, each of which contains water, pop as well? Because, unlike rice and wheat and even regular corn, popcorn has a non-porous hull that traps steam, whereas with the porous hulls of other grains, steam easily passes through, so no significant pressure is produced.
This means that occasionally a kernel won’t pop, which once led Orville Redenbacher to reveal that, “Every once in a while someone will mail me a single popcorn kernel that didn’t pop and I’ll get out a fresh kernel, tape it to a piece of paper and mail it back to them.”
Now, no one knows really knows where popcorn first came from, but archaeologists found it in tombs on the east coast of Peru that were a 1,000 years old and so well preserved that they were able to pop them while having a small party and watching PG drawings on cave walls.
Most archaeologists believe that popcorn originated in Mexico, even though they know it was also grown in China, Sumatra and India well before Columbus set off to discover the Americas because, by the time he arrived in 1492, popcorn was being snacked on throughout North and South America by most Native American tribes.
In fact, the natives of the West Indies tried to sell popcorn to Columbus and his crew. But he decided to take it from them instead and open up franchises in Europe, longing to be the first Orville Redenbacher there, although that apparently didn’t go over well, perhaps because he forgot to add butter, which, by the way, is a true story.
We Americans now consume 16 billion quarts of popcorn per year, or 52 quarts per man, woman, and child. Which is a good thing because popcorn contains 40 or more nutrients, all of the B complex vitamins, vitamin E, Riboflavin and Thiamine, has more protein than any other cereal grain, more iron than eggs, peanuts, spinach, or roast beef, is rich in phosphorous, is a calorie counter’s delight, assuming you don’t bathe it in three pounds of butter and aids digestion by providing necessary roughage or fiber.
And, amazingly, popcorn kernels can pop up to 3 feet in the air and be made into popcorn balls, the largest of which was created by volunteers in Sac City, Iowa, in February 2009, and weighed in at 5,000 lbs., stood over 8 feet tall and measured 28.8 feet in circumference.
In addition, popcorn became a real staple of modern American life during the Great Depression and forever worked its way into Catholic lore when Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”