AMARILLO, Texas Ahhh, popcorn. Just a whiff of the kernels exploding in oil makes us think of a summer matinee or an evening at the ballpark.
Americans devour more than 17 billion quarts of popcorn a year that's about 57 quarts per person making it one of the country's favorite snack foods.
Early settlers threw popcorn kernels directly into the fire or into heated sand.
Today, we toss bags of prepared kernels into a microwave oven and hit the popcorn button.
Either way, the result is the same: Yummy white puffs with a truly distinctive aroma.
Popcorn is a special hard variety of dried corn that pops open when heated. The kernel has enough internal moisture to become steam, and the kernel explodes because the steam has nowhere to go.
As a snack, popcorn is high in complex carbohydrates (the good kind) and a decent source of fiber. Depending on how you serve it, popcorn can be low in fat, calories and sodium, or deliciously decadent when drenched in gooey caramel.
Popcorn and the movies paired up in the early 1900s when independent vendors sold their snacks outside to people as they entered the theater. Eventually, theater owners realized they were missing an opportunity and started selling popcorn inside.
Panhandle Popcorn started supplying Texans with popcorn in 1942, said Jim Mock, who went to work for the company in 1976 and bought it 11 years later.
He sells pre-popped bags and raw kernels to grocery stores, as well as anybody with a concession stand.
"Back in the '70s, we were one of only two or three companies selling cans of popcorn," Mock said. He made a "cold call" to Neiman-Marcus back in 1978, and the cans have been included in the store's famous catalog ever since.
Fads come and go, he said. In the '70s, hot-air poppers were a must. In the '80s, popcorn specialty shops sold as many as 30 varieties of popped corn.
"Now we're back to the basics," Mock said. "Buttered, caramel and cheese."
Kettle corn, with a dash of sugar, also is a hot item.
While bags of pre-popped corn sell nicely in stores, Mock said he can't compete in the huge microwave popcorn market with a staggering array of choices, from Orville Redenbacker's Smart Pop to Jolly Time's Blast 'O Butter.
Paul Newman sells "organic microwave Pop's Corn featuring natural butter flavor and no trans fatty acids." Pop Secret just introduced new "Crispy Glazed" caramel corn.
"A few years back, companies introduced 94 percent fat-free, and it sells fair," said Mike Young with United Supermarkets. "But the heavy butter, movie-theater style sells the most. It's like with anything, people want something that tastes good the real thing."
In the '80s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest generated some hoopla over the high saturated fat in movie theater popcorn. According to CSPI, a large bag of popcorn had 50 grams of saturated fat, equivalent to six Big Macs.
The scare doesn't seem to have squelched desire for the stuff. During a recent visit to an Amarillo cinema, most patrons were carrying tubs not bags of the delicacy.
"We're still around," Mock said with a chuckle. "The vast majority of the population loves popcorn. They don't just like it; they love it."
The Popcorn Board offers numerous recipes, from Peanut Butter Cups to Yummy Yogurt Popcorn. Visit popcorn.org for more recipes.
There are six types of corn: sweet, dent, flint, pod, flour and popcorn. But only popcorn pops.
In South Africa, 1,000-year-old kernels of popcorn found in burial grounds in the coastal deserts were so well-preserved they still would pop.
Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it's popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn't crumble.
Popcorn kernels can pop up to 3 feet in the air.
The world's largest popcorn ball, as measured by the Guinness Book of World Records: 12 feet in diameter, containing 2,000 pounds of corn, 40,000 pounds of sugar, 280 gallons of corn syrup and 400 gallons of water.
If you make a trail of popcorn from New York City to Los Angeles, you would need more than 352,028,160 popped kernels.
Most of the world's popcorn is grown in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio.
During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops, which meant there wasn't much sugar left in the states to make candy. Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.
Source: The Popcorn Board
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