By BETTY SMITH
TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans knew popcorn was not only a tasty snack, but a nutritious food.
And the kernels, whether popped or in their unpopped form, keep jumping off supermarket shelves today in microwave packages and the traditional jars or bags.
Recent reports of possible lung problems resulting from microwave popcorn consumption haven't fazed avid popcorn eaters. And manufacturers have said they'll stop using the ingredient blamed for causing the lung problems.
"I love popcorn," said Charline Long of Tahlequah. "It's my favorite snack."
Thinking of the smell of freshly-popped corn brings back good memories for Long.
"When we were kids, our dad used to grow popcorn and we'd save a big sack of it to pop every winter," she said. "Now I get those microwave popcorn bags. Back then, I liked it popped over the fire in the old popper."
Long referred to the old-style, basket-shaped popper with a long handle used to heat up the corn in the fireplace. And in pre-microwave days, many dorm-bound college students used an electric popcorn popper as their first cooking implement away from home. Besides making popcorn, the poppers could be used to warm up soup, or in other creative ways.
Long hadn't heard of the reported possible health dangers of microwave popcorn, but the news didn't deter her.
"It won't make me quit eating it," she said.
She and a friend said there's always some sort of news about a food that's supposed to create health dangers, but usually the news is exaggerated, and later people are told the food is safe.
Randy Moore, grocery manager at Reasor's, said microwave popcorn remains popular with shoppers.
"Obviously the microwave popcorn is by far the best selling," he said.
The favored brand of microwave corn is Pop Secret, which carries the endorsement of popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher.
And a type of corn promising to recreate the experience of purchasing a bag or bucket of buttered corn in a movie theater also sells well, Moore said.
"Traditional popcorn doesn't sell nearly as well. The convenience factor of the microwave is so much better," Moore said.
He believes that besides buying popcorn to consume at home, many people take it to the office for a midmorning or mid-afternoon snack. Some people even use it for lunch at work.
Why does popcorn pop? Native Americans told tales of spirits that lived inside each kernel. When the corn was heated, it angered the spirits and they began to shake violently, finally bursting out of their homes.
Actually, each kernel contains a tiny drop of water, surrounded by starches and a hard outer shell. As the kernel heats up, the water expands and eventually the starches, fueled by the steam, break through the shell.
According to The Popcorn Board, popping was apparently the first use for wild and cultivated corn. The oldest ears of popcorn, tinier than today's, date back around 4,000 years. They were discovered in the Bat Cave in west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950.
During the early 16th century, conquistadors documented the use of popcorn by the Aztecs in their ceremonies, including a popcorn dance performed by young women. Popcorn was used as an ornament on the statues of some gods, including the rain and fertility god Tlaloc.
Spaniards also wrote about popcorn use by the Incas in Peru.
From the 1890s through the Depression, popcorn was a favorite snack dispensed by street vendors. The invention of a portable popping cart made this possible. During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few affordable luxuries for many people.
The Popcorn Board's Web site tells of one Oklahoma banker who went broke during the Depression. He scraped together enough money to open a popcorn store, and his profits were great enough to buy back three farms he had lost.
During World War II, Americans ate about three times as much popcorn as they had in the past. Sugar was scarce and much of it was reserved for fighting troops. Popcorn provided a non-sugary alternative.
However, popcorn consumption slumped during the 1950s, as the advent of television resulted in a decrease in theater attendance. But soon, Americans began popping corn at home to snack on while watching Jack Benny or Ed Sullivan.
Popcorn was the first food to be heated in microwave ovens when they were invented in the 1940s. Microwave popcorn boomed in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, and dominates the market today.
Popcorn is valued as a low-calorie snack, if you don't add too much butter. It's low in fat and contains complex carbohydrates.
Check it out!
If you're looking ahead and making plans, October is officially national Popcorn Poppin' Month. The Popcorn Board offers many recipes for popped corn, including these:
Crispy, Crunchy Apple Popcorn
6 cups popped popcorn
1 tablespoon melted butter
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups dried apple chips
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a 9- by 13-inch pan with foil, butter the foil. Spread popcorn in the pan and drizzle with melted butter. Toss. Sprinkle the popcorn with the sugar and cinnamon, toss again. Heat 7 minutes. Sprinkle apple chips over popcorn, heat 3 more minutes. Serve warm or cool. Store in airtight container.
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 stick butter or margarine
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
10 cups freshly popped popcorn
10-1/2-ounce package miniature marshmallows
2 cups miniature graham teddy bears
1 cup chocolate chips
Combine brown sugar, butter and corn syrup in saucepan. Cook over high heat 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add baking soda. Combine popcorn and marshmallows in a large bowl. Pour sugar mixture over and coat. Gently stir in graham crackers and chocolate chips. Spread in greased 10- by 15-inch pan; let cool. Break into pieces. Store in airtight container.