January 19 is National Popcorn Day, and this snack is worth celebrating for many reasons. Popcorn contains health-promoting dietary fiber and antioxidants, which can help prevent and manage many chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Of course, the health benefits of popcorn lessen as you add in the butter, salt, and other delicious toppings found at movie theaters and gourmet shops. But we digress…
Popcorn is a type of maize (or corn), a member of the grass family, and is scientifically known as Zea mays everta. It is different from other types of corn thanks to its thicker pericarp (or hull). This hull allows pressure from heated water to build before bursting open. Experts say that 400°F is the ideal temperature for popping popcorn, perfectly turning the water inside the kernel to expanding steam. The starch inside the kernel then turns into a gelatin. When the hull bursts open, the liquified starch spills out and instantly cools, giving popcorn its familiar shape. If it pops in a round shape it is called mushroom popcorn, while the more unpredictable shapes are called butterfly popcorn. The unpopped popcorn kernels at the bottom of the bag are called spinsters, or old maids.
Popcorn has long been popped in pots over a flame, but the turn of the 19th century brought a flurry of popcorn innovation. In 1875, a Kentucky resident named Frederick J. Myers patented a corn-popping device that added a stay-cool handle. In 1885, Charles Cretors of Chicago invented a lightweight electric machine that popped corn in oil, allowing vendors to easily move along with crowds in search of a better profit. Eight years later, Cretors improved the model by adding a device that would butter and salt the popcorn, too.
When popcorn first started being sold inside movie theaters, it was to help boost the movie industry, which was in decline as the country entered the Great Depression. It was always an affordable treat, and soon became synonymous with the movie theater. Still today, the aroma alone triggers happy movie memories for many of us.
If you’d like to celebrate with this beloved snack, don’t feel like it needs to be boring. You can always jazz up a bowl of popcorn by adding flavorings, oils, candies, spices. To make your popcorn more exciting: Drizzle with melted chocolate and peanut butter, or pour on some caramel and toss with roasted peanuts. For savory options, spice up your bowl with a dusting of parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes, taco seasoning, or ranch dressing seasoning. Give it a toss, and enjoy!