The smell of popcorn popping is one that arouses the senses of both young and old and makes the mouth water for a tasty handful. It makes a cold day a little cozier and a movie a little more enjoyable. Just about everything is better with popcorn and almost everyone loves it. If you want to make instant friends, make a batch of popcorn, and walk through a crowded room! It is one of the most beloved snacks of all time, but where did it come from and how does it pop?
No one knows exactly where popcorn came from or when it was first popped, but archaeologists have been "hot" on the popcorn trail, and they have found popcorn in some most unusual places. One such place was the tombs on the east coast of Peru where they found grains of popcorn that were a 1,000 years old. These grains were so well preserved that they still popped! Ears of popcorn were also found in the Bat Cave of West Central New Mexico that were nearly 5,600 years old. One of the oldest finds of popcorn was made in Mexico City where 80,000-year-old fossilized corn pollen was found buried 200 feet below the city!
Archaeologists believe that popcorn originated in Mexico, but they know that it was grown in China, Sumatra, and India years before Columbus visited America! By the time Columbus arrived in 1492, popcorn was widespread throughout North and South America and was enjoyed by most Native American tribes. The natives of the West Indies even tried to sell popcorn to Columbus and his crew, but it wasn?t until the first Thanksgiving Feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts that the English colonists were introduced to popcorn. As a gift for the celebration, Quadequina, brother of the Wampanoag chief Massasoit brought a deerskin bag of popped corn. He certainly understood how to make friends fast!
So just how does popcorn pop? Only popcorn kernels can pop, and the secret is water. Each kernel contains a small amount of water stored in a circle of soft starch inside the hard outer casing. When heated to around 450º F, the moisture turns to steam, creating pressure within. As the pressure builds, the casing eventually gives way, and the kernel explodes and pops, allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernel inside out. If you have ever popped popcorn, you know that it explodes everywhere!
To keep popcorn from exploding everywhere, modern popcorn poppers usually have some way to keep the popcorn contained. Most poppers are covered in some fashion, but the ways of popping popcorn differ greatly. There are air poppers, poppers made for the fireplace, bags designed as poppers for the microwave, foil pans designed for the stove top, and various machines that use heat and oil. Even though our methods of popping popcorn may differ, they really are not that different from long ago.
Archaeologists have found ancient popcorn poppers on the north coast of Peru that date back to the pre-Incan Mohica Culture of about 300 AD. These poppers were usually shallow bowl-like containers with a hole on top and a single handle. They were sometimes decorated with a sculptured or printed motif such as a cat. However, you didn?t always even need a popper, as shown by some Native Americans who just spread oil on an ear of popcorn and laid it near a fire. The kernels would pop attached to the ear, and it was even eaten similar to corn-on-the-cob.
Produced by Kids Science News Network, and the NASA LaRC Office of Education
No matter how you like to pop your popcorn, you can rest assured that it will pop, smell good, and bring friends to your side for a tasty handful. Just be sure that you pop enough or you might be left holding an empty bowl!
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