American as, er…Apple Pie

More American, really, for a food just doesn’t get anymore New World/American than popcorn. You probably already know that corn is a New World food. It follows that popping corn is as well, though it’s distinct from more conventional varieties in that its kernels are smaller and harder. Popcorn is a variety of so-called “flint” corn, so-named for its hardness. It’s the hard outer membrane (pericarp) and dense, firm starch (endosperm) that creates those physical characteristics, and as it happens makes it perfect for popping.

The archaeological record shows that popcorn dates back at least 5,500 years in Mexico, and it’s probably safe to assume that Native Americans around North America have enjoyed it for millennia. Cortez observed that the 16th Century Aztecs used popcorn as a food, for ornamentation, even as a decorative personal accessory. Early French explorers likewise witnessed the preparation and consumption of popcorn among the Iroquois in the 17th Century.

It is of course the Indians who taught North America colonists how to prepare and enjoy popcorn, and it wasn’t long before early Americans were fashioning specialized devices prepare it. Rotisserie-like gadgets like this made it extremely easy to prepare popcorn over an open fire:

By the 1800’s Americans were adding popcorn to just about everything. They sprinkled it on soups, stews and main dishes and made everything from porridges to cakes to breakfast cereals out of it. They even poured molasses over it to make proto-Cracker Jack. Of course that particular trade name didn’t come along until later — 1893 to be precise — but more on that later.

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