The Tale of the Humble Popcorn

Corn pollen more than 80,000 years old was found in Mexico. Proper popcorn was known in China, Sumatra, and India for at least 5000 years. Popped popcorn and kernels 5600 years old were discovered in the "Bat Cave" in New Mexico in 1948-1950. Popcorn kernels - ready to pop - were unearthed in ancient Peruvian tombs. In a cave is southern Utah, fluffy, fresh looking, white popcorn was dated to 1000 years ago. Popcorn was used by the Aztecs and Indians as a decorative motif in headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues of divinities. In the 16th century, both Hernando Cortes (in Mexico) and Christopher Columbus (in the West Indies) described these unusual uses of the snack. Father Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), a Franciscan priest with deep interest in Mexican culture, described a ritual in honor of the Aztec gods of fisheries: "They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water." French explorers in the early 17th century reported that the Iroquois Indians in the Great Lakes region drank popcorn beer and ate popcorn soup. In either 1621, or in 1630, popcorn was brought as a gift by the Indian Quadequina, brother of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe, to the colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts at their first Thanksgiving dinner in the new land. This may be an apocryphal story but, in any case, it would not have been popcorn as we know it today. An oiled ear was held on a stick over an open fire and the popped kernels would be chewed off. Popcorn later served as a morning cereal, eaten with cream or milk. The colonists called it "popped corn", "parching corn", or "rice corn". Most of the world's popcorn ("prairie gold") is produced in Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana, in the United States. The kernel is a seed containing a plant embryo and its soft, starchy food. The seed is protected by a hard shell. Heating the kernel converts water held in the seed into pressurized steam which causes the kernel to pop and the starch to expand to 40 times its original size.

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