The love of popcorn is nothing new. The history of popcorn consumption stretches back more than 5,000 years. Archaeologists and researchers believe that popcorn is the oldest of a group of five sweet corns that include Indian corn, pod corn, sweet corn, and field corn. Popcorn was a New World food, originally grown in Mexico — popcorn ears more than 5,600 years old were found in the Bat Cave in New Mexico half a century ago, before spreading globally through India, China and Sumatra long before the first European explorers reached our shores.
Originally throwing it on sizzling hot stones placed over an open fire was the method for popping corn. With no way to contain it, the popcorn would explode in various directions, and anyone who wanted to eat it had to find it first.
American Indians popped corn 2,000 years ago, and Christopher Columbus, on landing here in 1492, observed West Indian natives wearing popcorn corsages. Popcorn also was used to decorate ceremonial headdresses, and enterprising Indians sold popcorn to Columbus’ sailors. Popcorn that is more than 1,000 years old was discovered on the east coast of Peru. Preserved by the Peruvian Indians, this popcorn still pops a millennium or so later.
The Aztecs, according to Cortez, used popcorn to decorate their ceremonial garb as a symbol of goodwill and peace. The Aztecs also fashioned necklaces and other ornaments from popcorn to place on the statues of their deities, particularly that of the god Tlaloc, who represented rain, fertility, and maize.
Ways of popping corn differed over the years. Eschewing throwing kernels on hot slabs, the Iroquois, in the 17th century, popped their corn in pottery containing heated sand. Other ancient poppers were made of soapstone, pottery and metal, some with tripod legs, and some large clay containers with lids, designed to be set right in the fire.
Popcorn was served at the first Thanksgiving feast, brought to the Pilgrims by Quadequine, a brother of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. Colonials loved the dish so much, they used to serve it with sugar and cream for breakfast. Popcorn carts, invented in 1885, were so popular that crowds would follow them down the streets, watching the kernels develop.
And popcorn still is one of the most popular snacks. More than one billion pounds are consumed a year, with the average American eating approximately 70 quarts per person yearly.