National Popcorn Day, which is today – January 19th, is a day to celebrate the go-to movie snack for millions, even if it gets stuck in your teeth and seemingly dodges all the floss you throw its way. Before you question why the U.S. has designated a day of celebration for this corn-based treat, you should know that, on average, Americans consume close to 14 billion quarts of it. That’s the equivalent of 10 gallons of popcorn for every American adult and child.
Popcorn has a long and complicated history, dating back to ancient times. Archaeologists found traces of kernels scattered around Peruvian tombs thousands of years old.
Other studies suggest that people ate popped corn across Mesoamerica, South America, and North America. Later, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés encountered the Aztecs when he invaded Mexico – and the Aztecs consumed popcorn and used it as decoration in ceremonies.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, as early American settlers took to farming, corn (and popcorn) grew in popularity and use. With the invention of the steel plow, states in the Midwest like Iowa and Nebraska became massive producers of the vegetable, leading some Iowans to produce “Prairie God,” a series of poems and stories celebrating its production.
While popcorn was a well-liked snack, the real surge in popularity occurred in the late 19th century, thanks to a man named Charles Cretor. He designed a mobile popping machine in 1885, and after a few tweaks and reiterations, the food was being sold at street fairs, festivals, and sporting events across the country.
The movie boom of the late 1920s brought millions of new customers to movie theaters, and the popped salty goodness followed them there.
The Great Depression crushed the wave of movie-goers, but the affordable cost of the movie necessity made it the go-to indulgence for many during this era.
Popcorn’s last big surge is thanks to the invention of microwaves in 1946, though they weren’t commonplace in kitchens until the 1980s. The first microwavable version was sold in 1981, and by 1986 Americans were buying $250 million of the treat every year.
Making the Treat
Popcorn comes from a specific type of corn called the Zea mays everta. It’s the only variety that can actually “pop.” Once harvested, kernels are collected and dried to a specific moisture level of 14%, an optimal point to ensure they expand. Once all the seeds are collected and cleaned, an internal temperature of 400–600 degrees Fahrenheit is required to create enough pressure to rupture them, turning them inside out.
Popcorn has been around longer than the U.S., the sandwich, eyeglasses, and the printing press. If you’re not sure how to celebrate the observance, you can eat it at home, at the movies, on the way to the movies, or you could just watch a movie about popcorn without eating it.
Regardless of how you enjoy the day, make sure you have a plan in case some kernel hulls get stuck in your teeth because that’s the worst — and one of the only cons of the salty, buttery delicacy.