The Science & History of Popcorn – The Snack that Saved the Movies

[Class Assembling] Hello, John Hess from and
today we’ll dig into science and history of Popcorn and how this delicious treat helped save the
movies. Ah magical sound of corn popping but what is it about this seed that explodes
in fluffly flaky goodness? Popcorn is the species of corn called Zea
mays everta with a very interesting characteristic. Unlike most grains, the pericarp or hull of
the popcorn kernel is both hard and impervious to moisture. Inside this seed, the endosperm is made of
a hard dense starch with a little bit of water and oil ideally around 14% for good popping corn. That little bit of water makes all the difference. When popcorn is heated that water turns to
steam but it can’t escape the hard waterproff shell. As the temperature increases, the steam pressure
builds and the starchy inside turn into a hot molten gel.. At around 356F (180C) the internal pressure
is 135psi – 930 kiloPascals at this point the shell erupts and the molten
starch expands quickly rapidly cooling and forming an airy foam. This creates starch and protein polymers of
that familar cruchy puff. In the industry, there are two kinds of popcorn
flakes Butterfly flakes are irregularly shaped pieces
with wings. This is considered to have a more pleasant
mouth feel and is generally used for movie and everyday snacking popcorn. Mushroom flakes take on a more ball shape
making them less frangile often used for prepackaged popcorn and confectionary
like caramel corn. Popcorn is perhaps oldest snack food known
to man with evidence of popcorn being found in the
“bat cave” in Western New Mexico dating back to 3600 BC. The origins of popcorn as a species are not
entirely clear, but it seems to go hand and hand with the
domestication of maize by early Central and South American inhabitants. In fact the English word “corn” is somewhat
misleading. Corn originally meant whatever cereal plant
was most used by a culture. To the English, corn was wheat, in Scotland
and Ireland, corn was oats. When the European settlers came to the Americas they found the inhabitants growing Indian
Corn or maize their dominant cereal plant. Although European settlers in the new world
encountered popcorn in central and South America, there is actually no evidence to suggest that
popcorn was present at the first American Thanksgiving in Plymouth
Massachusetts in 1621. Instead Popcorn as we know it today would
find its way to North American east coast as Valparaiso corn brought up sailors and whalers from the Chilean
port of Valparaiso recorded as early as 1820. Within a few years it came to be known by
what we call it today “popcorn” an Americanism that shortened the words popped
corn. With the invention of wire poppers, popcorn
spread quickly throughout the United States. But it was industrialization that would cement
popcorn in the American culinary heritage. At the Columbian Expo in Chicago 1893, inventor
Charles Cretors introduced the world’s first mobile popcorn machine a simple steam engine attached to a peanut
cart that cooked popcorn in a mixture of butter and lard. At the same expo F.W. Rueckheim introduced
a molasses flavored “Candied Popcorn with Peanuts” the first Caramel Corn. It was a bit too sticky
for most people, so Rueckheim’s brother altered the recipe
and packaged it a Cracker Jack in 1896. With Cretor’s mobile popcorn machine and
Cracker Jack, Popcorn became a staple of the American Social
experience. By 1920s, popcorn was everywhere, at sporting
events, circuses, parks, bars… everywhere except the movie theater. The movie palaces of the 1920s were fighting
a PR battle with bawldry Nickelodeons. Movie theaters wanted to create an image of
class and sophistication so they copied the style of traditional theaters with sweeping architecture of grand lobbies
and furnishing it with elegant crystal chandeliers and gorgeous carpets. The movies were too refined and too good for
the common man’s snack and owners didn’t want to deal with the mess and the aroma of popcorn in their immaculate
halls. But technology and economics change everything. The most important shift in film technology
was the addition of synchronized sound. After 1927, you could actually hear what the
actors were saying on screen instead being required to read title cards. This opened up the movies to brand new audiences
– people who were illiterate and often poor and young children audiences that wouldn’t really be attracted
to the palatial setting of movie houses. And then came the Great Depression. Many movie palaces went under and those that
survived were clinging to dear life. Everyone in the movies were suffering… except
for the street vendors who were proving there was a buttery goldmine in popcorn. Popcorn was a cheap luxury that people could
still afford and it became the first snack smuggled under coats into the movie theater. In this dark time, you could actually make
a living as a popcorn street vendor. An Oklahoma banker, who had lost his shirt
in the stock market crash, resorted to selling popcorn in front of movie theater. Within a couple years, he made enough money
to buy a house, a farm and a store. Another example of the money in popcorn involves
Kemmons Wilson, a young kid who dropped out of high school to support his family. He struck a deal with a Memphis movie theater
to sell popcorn outside the theater to patrons. He bought a $50 machine on credit and began
selling bags for 5 cents each. In not too much time he was making $40 to
$50 dollars a week a lot of money in those times considering the movie theater was struggling to pull in $25. Jealous, the
theater owner kicked Wilson out and moved into the popcorn business himself. This story does have a happy ending as Kemmons
Wilson vowed to own his own theater so no one would ever take his popcorn machine away again and it was something he did years after
he founded Holiday Inn. The independent non-studio owned theaters
were first on board the popcorn gravy train – R.J. McKenna – a manager that ran a chain
of theaters in the west began selling popcorn inside the movie theater lobby where the buttery aroma boosted sales. By
1938 he was collecting over $200,000 in proceeds. Another chain on the East coast experimented
with popcorn only in there smaller theaters keeping the nicest and fanciest theaters concessions
free. Those that had popcorn were making a profit
whereas the fancy theaters were dipping into the red. Popcorn was literally saving the movie theater
business so much so that a Depression-era entrepreneur
once gave this bit of advice: “Find a good place to sell popcorn, and
build a movie theater around it” Popcorn continued its growing in American
Pop culture especially during World War 2 when sugar rations made candy and chocolate
scarce. But popcorn, like the movies would face a
serious challenger in the new entertainment technology of the 1950s: Television. Television was the last straw in a crumbling
studio system in the late forties and fifties. Movie attendance dropped as much as 50% inside
the decade – along with it popcorn sales. The problem with popcorn was it was hard to
make at home and in small servings. But as the movies turned to new technology
to lure audiences back into theaters, the popcorn industry turned to technology
to make popcorn at home. Brands like EZ pop in 1955 and Jiffy Pop in
1959 sold packaged unpopped kernels in disposable aluminum pans that would expand during cooking. Despite patent violation lawsuits, Jiffy Pop
would go on to become the standard for home cooked popcorn for a generation. But it was another piece of technology that
would make popcorn the perfect companion for a night in with a movie: The Microwave Oven. Raytheon Manufacturing Corporation was a company
based out of Massachusetts that made radio tubes for consumer use. During World War II, the British approached
them to mass produce an electronic component called a magnetron to be used in their secret weapon – RADAR. Raytheon ended up producing over 80% of all
magnetrons used by the Allied Forces, shooting their income from $6 million a year
in 1942 up to $173 million by the War’s end. But the executives faced a serious problem:
what could they do with all these magnetrons once hostilities cease? In late 1945, a Raytheon Engineer and Inventor
named Percy Spencer brought a patent attorney into the lab for a demonstration. He set up a microwave tube and dropped a kernel
of popcorn in front of the wave guide. It popped – creating the world’s first microwaved
popcorn. Within two years the first commercially produced
microwave oven was introduced standing about 6 feet tall, weighed 750 lbs,
and costing between $2,000 and $3,000. Perhaps a bit big and expensive for most families
but a couple of decades of refinement would eventually result in counter sized models
and the microwave popcorn boom would take hold in the 1980s just in time for popularization of premium
cable and watch-at-home movie technologies like VHS, Beta and LaserDisc. For some, the movie going experience is simply
incomplete without a bucket of buttery yellow popcorn. The tie is not only a personal and cultural
connection – it’s actually an economic one as well. Popcorn pulled movie theaters from bankruptcy
during the Great Depression and it still accounts for as much as half
of the income generated by a movie theaters today more so than the actual ticket price. That outrageous and frankly insane mark-up
we pay at the concessions is how this little puff of air and starch
is responsible for keeping movies in business. For without popcorn, there simply would be
no theaters, and perhaps no movies at least not the way
we know them. Whether you partake or not, know that this simple ancient snack help make
film and filmmaking possible. Now go out and make something great. I’m John Hess, I’ll
see you at

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