Popcorn Is a Time Capsule for How We Snack
“The butter is the best part,” Summer Adams told me during my first visit to the Eveningstar Cinema in small-town Brunswick, Maine. “We melt it by the pound—I unwrapped some sticks today.”
In a black choker and a Scream pullover sweater, Summer was proud to scoop me up some Eveningstar popcorn. I’d heard murmurs about these kernels—better, allegedly, than those from any mainstream movie theater or, of course, the microwavable bag—all over my nearby college campus, but I was skeptical. When I thought of a quintessential, regionally famous food in a small town, I wouldn’t typically think of popcorn. In fact, before visiting the Eveningstar, I rarely thought of popcorn at all.
I stood, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, as Summer filled my cup and tossed it with two generous pumps of real (read: colorless) butter—first at the halfway-full mark, and then again when the cup was teeming with white popcorn. Although I was rounding out my fourth and final year at Bowdoin College, a mere 15-minute walk from the cinema, I had come here for the first time only by happenstance. On my way, I confirmed that my favorite gluten-free bakery had, in fact, just closed—and then the unique smell of Eveningstar popcorn one door over became too tempting to ignore.
There are many things about Eveningstar popcorn that distinguish it from a traditional movie theater tub, but the first thing I noticed was its mild scent, more akin to grilled corn on the cob than the nostalgia of synthetic butter. The second thing I noticed was the crowded countertop, packed with seasonings that had names like cayenne-spiked “Mexican Hot Cocoa” and “Pizza Party” sourced from local purveyors in Maine. No powdered cheddar or saccharine, caramel concoction in sight. “We’re trying to have more of an elevated popcorn experience as opposed to other cinemas,” she said, smiling proudly.
Popcorn is often regarded as a near-requisite, though mindless, movie theater snack. But popcorn’s path to ubiquity is marked by the same milestones that we associate with the development of culture—from notable technological advancements to the tension between colonization and repatriation—and there’s nothing mindless about it.
The first popcorn plants were farmed in the eighth century BCE by Indigenous groups, such as the Aztec and Maya in southern Mexico, according to Andrew Smith, culinary history writer and lecturer in food studies at the New School in New York. These popcorn seeds, when placed on rocks or in pots over fire, would explode upon reaching about 355 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I like to think popcorn was the first snack food,” says now-retired Jim Iverson, a plant breeder who developed and sold hybrid popcorn varieties for over 40 years for Crookham Company, one of the nation’s largest popcorn seed banks and wholesale kernel purveyors. “People munched on it at nighttime or at home with their breakfast.”
Thousands of years later, this early-stage popcorn, referred to by the Aztec nation as “izquitl,” or “parched corn,” spread across the Americas during European colonization. The crop became a popular and lucrative national export. Popcorn became easier than ever to prepare, thanks to advancements like the newly minted “wire over the fire” popping method in 1837, which involved placing kernels in a wire basket over an open flame, and, eventually, the invention of the traditional popcorn machine in 1893. In the wake of the Great Depression, cinemas began selling popcorn at concession stands because of the snack’s steep profit margins. Now, almost a century later, popcorn sales are still how cinemas make up to 80% of their revenue.
“Theater owners want to have a huge popping volume, so that’s our most important selection criteria when breeding,” Iverson says. “A large popcorn tub can go for ten bucks, so if you can get just ten more bags, it’s a hundred dollars more out of a fifty-pound bag of popcorn.”
Some Crookham varietals, such as the excitingly named R98114W, have a popping yield of 77 kernels per 10 grams, with a 50-to-1 popped-to-unpopped kernel ratio, making them well-suited for the movie theater concession market. Along with popping volume, Iverson cited high expansion rates and the perfect balance between crunch and fluff as some of the most important qualities for Crookham’s theater clients. With all of these criteria, the process of breeding the perfect movie popcorn is not an easy one. “I would make 600 hybrids a year, hoping to get one good one,” he says. “It’s not a great science in terms of predictability. It’s just trial and error.” While difficult, this work ultimately pays off. If movie theaters are the main reason popcorn is so ubiquitous in the United States today, microwaves might claim the title of second place.
“In the ’80s, microwaves were new in offices. Everyone was suddenly making microwave popcorn,” says Corby Kummer, now a senior editor at the Atlantic and executive director of the Food and Society policy program at the Aspen Institute.“It was goopy and horrible most of the time, but I was interested in exploring this newly emerging idea of microwavable popcorn.”
At the very same time that Kummer explored then-innovative popping techniques in his 1988 feature “Hot Popcorn” for the Atlantic, popcorn’s image was undergoing a major makeover. In the wake of harrowing sociopolitical commentary on the “dangers” of fats and carbohydrates, marketing surrounding popcorn began to change rapidly—popcorn would no longer fly off the shelves if it were advertised as an indulgent treat or a dietary vice. The average American consumer in the 1980s was searching for a quick fix when it came to a healthy snack. Thankfully, popcorn, with its minimal ingredients and easy preparation, was a natural fit.
The 1980s, Smith says, marked the era of popcorn’s enshrinement as a “health food”—an era that was ultimately short-lived. In the early 1990s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a scathing study on the saturated fat content of movie theater popcorn. In the blink of an eye, popcorn’s status in the under-nuanced “good vs. bad food” debate shifted to the other extreme, even though not all brands or popping mechanisms relied on so much melted butter.
Even 30 years after the CSPI’s study, it’s safe to say that local cinemas are still feeling its pressure. At the Eveningstar, Summer was eager to reassure me about the cinema’s competitive, “healthier” edge in popcorn preparation.
“A lot of places use a butter-flavored oil, which is just bad for you,” Summer says. “We try to keep it as clean as possible.”
It’s entirely possible that, in the 21st century, pervasive diet culture could once again shake popcorn’s reputation. At the same time, with the recent emergence of a new wave of popcorn, it’s also possible that the nutritional yeast-dusted BjornQorns from Upstate New York and sunflower-oil-popped Boom Chicka Pops of the world are manufacturing popcorn’s new image—as the slightly quirky, sometimes homegrown, and mostly all-natural snack that it always has been. After all, Bruce Hamaker, director of the Purdue University Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research, argues that people overlook popcorn’s many virtues.
“There’s a lot of noise around processed foods, but popcorn is very simple,” Hamaker says. “It’s got a good amount of fiber in it, which people don’t recognize. It’s a whole-grain product.”
Award-winning food journalist Max Falkowitz, who refers to popcorn as a “good ingredient,” suggests that those who discount popcorn’s value should consider the use of popcorn, and other grains like it, in nonwestern culinary practices.
“There’s a whole genre of foods, like South Asian chaat, that are made with puffed rice, amaranth, and sorghum. In Japan, puffed rice goes in tea to make genmaicha—it’s a native craft,” he says. “There’s a lot of flavor and creativity in the way that puffed grains are used in other cultures.”
Indeed, in both growing and selling, popcorn has connected communities that might otherwise be isolated, alienated, or fragmented from one another. Iverson, who likens popcorn breeding to “playing around in nature’s toolbox,” would frequently experiment with breeding popcorn kernels in vibrant colors, such as blue, mauve, and even red stripes. With gratitude for popcorn’s indigenous roots, he sent some of these creations to the Hopi Tribe, some of whose members he learned have a notably religious connection to corn.
“The Hopi are great farmers, and some of them talked to me about how God gave them all different types of corn to cultivate,” Iverson said. “I wanted to send them even more colors, shapes, and sizes of corn. The markets were so small for these specialty crops, but they were fascinating.”
While popcorn’s reputation might have been altered—and sometimes tarnished—during its centuries-long run, it’s never lost its relevance. In fact, with the influx of modern popcorn brands embracing new preparation methods and unconventional flavors like ube and dill pickle, it seems that popcorn might be having a renaissance. Knowing that the image of popcorn has consistently mirrored the evolving values and priorities of its consumers, it’s worth keeping an eye on the concession stand. After all, what’s next for popcorn might also be what’s next for us.