Popcorn: Mythical & Magical Maize
12/03/10 5:55PM  Download MP3
Not just for microwaves, popcorn is a stove-top popping delight!
This week on the VPR Table, Marialisa Calta shares some little know facts and debunks some widely accepted myths about popcorn. Listen for The VPR Table, Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, as we explore popcorn: from where you go to eat popcorn, to what you put on top, to which kind of popcorn comes from Franklin, Vermont.
This time of year, there's nothing like a cozy couch, a good movie
- and a big bowl of popcorn. For us popcorn lovers, there will be no heaven without our favorite treat. The Pre-Incan inhabitants of Chile must have felt the same way. They buried their loved ones with bags of popcorn.
Popcorn played a significant role in the history of the Americas. In fact, anthropologists believe that 8000 years ago, the first eating corn was domesticated from wild popcorn. Andrew Smith, writing in "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn," said that among the pre-Columbian Amerindians, "popping likely caused surprise and some amusement." Life had to be pretty hard back then. Leave it to popcorn to supply a few chuckles.
Contrary to legend, Smith says, there was no popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. Popcorn, he says, was not even cultivated east of the Mississippi until the 18th century. But when it got here, it was a hit, immortalized in paintings and poems. Older Vermonters will tell you about popcorn parties, and about eating popcorn with milk for a snack or light supper.
Today in Vermont, there is at least one farm growing popcorn - The Vermont Popcorn Company run by Amy and Eric Beauregard in Franklin. They started five years ago, but several crops were lost to early snow and heavy rains. This year, Amy says, she'll be drying a bumper crop over winter, for sale in the spring.
Popcorn consumption peaked in American in 1993, a mere decade after the introduction of... microwave popcorn. Coincidence? I think not. Microwave popcorn turns kernels of corny goodness in to Styrofoam-peanut-like bits. And, it's not even much quicker than stovetop corn.
The beauty of hot, oil-popped popcorn is that it needs nothing but salt and, perhaps, nutritional yeast, a topping popularized by Montpelier's Savoy Theater. New owners have kept the yeast, and added wine to the beverages. A glass of wine and a tub of yeast-topped popcorn. Heaven achieved.
I write a weekly food column, and years ago it was my pleasure to work with students and chefs from the New England Culinary Institute, developing recipes for the column. In 1999, I was writing about popcorn, and this is what students Stacy Corley and Matthew Wellnitz came up with.
4 cups popped popcorn
1/4 cup maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste
4 5-ounce salmon fillets, preferably wild salmon
vegetable oil, for cooking
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Put the popcorn in a plastic bag and crush it with a rolling pin, as if you were making cracker crumbs. You don't have to make them too fine- single lobes of popcorn are the desired size. You will have about 2 and 1/2 cups of crumbs.
Put the crushed popcorn into a shallow dish and drizzle the maple syrup over it. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with your hands so that the syrup is well distributed.
Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper and, using a pastry brush, brush the flesh-side of each with your favorite mustard. Then, press the coated side of the salmon in the maple-popcorn mixture, pressing the popcorn on with your hands. Set the fillets aside, coated side up.
Heat about a tablespoon of oil (or enough to coat bottom of pan) in a skillet until quite hot but not smoking. Sear the popcorn side of one fillet about 45 seconds; flip over and sear skin side for about a minute. Remove and place in an oven-proof dish large enough to hold all four fillets. Repeat for the remaining three fillets, adding more oil between searing if needed.
Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, or until fish is done to your liking. Serve immediately.
Note: this recipe should also work well with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Pound them thin before coating.
Yield: 4 servings
Historical popcorn recipes, reprinted from "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America," by Andrew F. Smith (University of South Carolina Press, 1999). I haven't tested any of these.
POPCORN GRIDDLE CAKES
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup corn meal
2 cups popped popcorn
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
Sift a bowl the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt. Put the popcorn through a food chopper and add to the dry ingredients. Stir in the egg, milk and water. Beat lightly until smooth, and bake on a hot, greased griddle. Serve with sirup [sic] or honey.
From "The Thrift Cook Book" by Marion Harris Neil (David McKay, Philadelphia: 1919)
HINT FOR SOUPS
When we serve corn chowder, we use popped corn with it in place of crackers; it is a pleasing novelty.
Good Housekeeping magazine, March, 1907, p. 358
POPCORN AND BACON
Just before the morning bacon or sausage is altogether cooked, add to the grease a generous handful of popped popcron: allow it to brown and serve with the meat. It adds a delicious, nutty flavor.
From "Pop Corn Recipes," by Mary Hamilton Talbott (Sam Nelson, JR. Company, Grinnell Iowa, 1916)
3/4 cup finely chopped popped corn
1 tablespoon melted butter
white of 1 egg
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
blanched and finely chopped almonds
In a bowl, combine the popped corn and butter. In another bowl, beat the egg white until stiff, add the sugar and continue beating. Fold into the popcorn mixture. Add salt and vanilla and stir gently until well mixed. Drop from the tip of a teaspoon onto a well-buttered baking sheet, 1 and 12/ inches apart.. Shape in circle with the spoon and flatten with a table knife that has been dipped in cold water. Sprinkle with chopped nut meats and press a shred of candied cherry in the top of each macaroon. Bake in a slow oven* until daintily browned.
*250 to 300 degrees F.
From "The Corn Book, War edition, by Elizabeth Hiller (P>F. Vollandd Company, New York, 1918)