At what temperature does popcorn pop? When do they date back according to historians? Why do Native Americans like them so much? And, above all, why does cinema owe him a lot?
Popcorn? They are highly prized by Native American tribes, who season them with dried herbs and spices and even chili. |
1. SCIENTIFIC NAME. The scientific name of popcorn, when it is not yet popcorn, is Zea mays: it is the common corn. But not all cultivars (the single varieties of a botanical species) of corn are able to open and burst, if duly urged: only the everta variant can be used to make popcorn. Other grains can actually burst when exposed to high temperatures, too, but they don’t make such a tasty snack. These include some varieties of rice, millet, sorghum and quinoa.
2. COMMON NAME. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “popcorn” dates back to 1838 to define this type of “blast” corn. But it is only since 1847 that the term popcorn has been associated with snacks.
3. WHEN IT WAS BORN. But popcorn is much older. Its traces are lost in the night of the pre-Colombian civilizations. The first cultivation of corn dates back to about 9 thousand years ago, in present-day Mexico, and the credit goes to the ancestors of the Aztecs, who domesticated a plant called teosinte. Thousands of years later the domestic plant arrived in South America, where it spread with different varieties.
Fossilized remains of cooked corn have been found in Peru by researchers at the Washington National History Museum, who dated it to 6,700 years ago. Already at that time the inhabitants of the region used cornmeal and ate popcorn. And 16th-century Aztecs wore popcorn garlands during ceremonial dances.
4. HOW IT BREAKS. The explosion of the corn kernels is due to the sudden expansion of the starch inside them, in contact with the heat: when it bursts – always downwards, because the heat is greater on the lower part of the grain – the typical reaction is produced that makes it jump the grain of corn to the top, as you can see in this slow-motion video.
5. MUSHROOMS, BUTTERFLIES AND SPINS. A grain of corn opens at the moment and at the point where the temperature is around 175 degrees. But not all grains explode: in the US, big consumers of popcorn, the unexploded ones are called spinsters. And there are two forms of popcorn: the larger kernels usually produce butterfly flakes, while the smaller flakes that crumble less easily and look like a mushroom.
6. THE SPIRIT OF THE POPCORN. Popcorn prepared grains are highly regarded by Native Americans, who season them with dried herbs and spices and even chili. Some tribes believed that a spirit lived within each grain of corn – benign spirits, which would not bother humans. In contact with the fire, however, they got angry until they … burst!
7. PATENTED VARIATIONS. More than 1,400 inventions with the word “popcorn” in the title are registered at the European Patent Office alone, mostly variants of the preparation. Popcornopolis, one of the largest popcorn companies in the US, has a catalog of popcorn in 22 flavors, ranging from cinnamon to smoked paprika.
8. FRIENDS OF CINEMA. It is thanks to popcorn that, in the 1930s, close to the great crisis of 1929, the film industry was saved: the lack of spectators in cinemas would in fact be offset by the income from popcorn sales. And to think that when popcorn began to spread in cinemas in 1920, the owners feared that the public would scatter them around, dirtying rugs and carpets (as indeed often happened), and the popcorn was sold and consumed only outside the hall. But it took little to convince exhibitors to admit them to the room.
9. INSPIRATIONS. It was thanks to popcorn that Percy Spencer understood the warming power of microwaves. While working on a magnetron, a device capable of generating the microwaves necessary for the operation of radars, he realized that the device had caused the melting of a bar of chocolate that he had in his pocket. So he thought about testing popcorn: he placed them in front of the appliance and they quickly jumped across the room, giving him the idea of using microwaves in the kitchen.
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