Friday, January 8, 2016

What Not to Do: Popcorn Superstitions, Folklore, History, and Stories

I had done it before, but you know, I forgot the measurements. I usually cook without measuring much of anything, so I figured I could wing this too.

I was making popcorn in the microwave last night. Not the pre-packaged kind, but just putting popcorn kernels into a brown paper lunch bag and putting it into the microwave on the "popcorn" setting. It really works and it's low cost and better for us than the packaged kind with who-knows-what added to it for flavor and to make the salt adhere.

I could not remember the amount of popcorn, however. Was it 1/2 cup? I put that amount in the bag but it seemed too little. A full cup? Maybe just a little less. I poured the kernels into the bag, folded the top closed and put it in the microwave.

After the "popcorn" setting had finished it was clear that there was a lot of unpopped corn in the bag, so I set it for another 2 minutes. Oh. My.

It popped. And popped. And popped. The bag burst open and popcorn began flying around inside the microwave. It was pretty entertaining, really. After a minute and a half the action subsided, and I opened the door. Kernels unpopped suddenly burst and flew out of the door at me. Popcorn was everywhere.

I had quite a cleanup to do when it was all over, but I could not stop laughing. I did it to myself, after all!

So just a word to the wise. A half cup of popcorn in a paper lunchbag, no more. You can also make it tastier, if you like, but tossing the kernels with a little olive oil and salt before popping. And you can do this in a bowl too, putting a plate on top to keep those wicked kernels in.

I really like this kind of popcorn. It's simple, not terribly bad for you, and it's inexpensive.As a child we seldom had this treat, and I wonder why because it costs little and that would have been a prime consideration in our very large family. Maybe my parents didn't like it, which was the reason we didn't eat a lot of things (like spicy food or oriental food, to name a couple).

And all the excitement last night got me to wondering about popcorn. Why does it pop when other corn doesn't? Are there any stories or superstitions about the fabled kernel?

Popcorn is a special variety of corn (or maize) that has a little moisture and oil trapped inside of its hull, and the hull is thinner than that of other corn. It's been around for centuries, probably since around 5000 BC and originated in Mexico. The kernels were just tossed on the fire then, and caught as they popped. It took a while for people to find ways to contain the popping corn--but this early method sounds like about as much fun as my wild microwave technique last night!

image from Wikimedia
The treat did not become popular until the late1800's in the US, when easy methods of popping were devised. At first it was sold on the streets by vendors who pushed their "popping carts" through the streets, but by 1925 ways were found to make popped corn at home.

Wikipedia has a wealth of information about popcorn, including a pretty spectacular method of making popcorn in China: "A very different method of popcorn-making can still be seen on the streets of some Chinese cities and Korea today. The un-popped corn kernels are poured into a large cast-iron canister — sometimes called a 'popcorn hammer' — that is then sealed with a heavy lid and slowly turned over a curbside fire in rotisseriefashion. When a pressure gauge on the canister reaches a certain level, the canister is removed from the fire, a large canvas sack is put over the lid and the seal is released. With a huge boom, all of the popcorn explodes at once and is poured into the sack.[9][10][11] This method is believed to have been developed during the Song dynasty originally for puffing rice."

A few superstitions and traditions are linked to popcorn: 

The early Aztecs believed that the popping of the corn was releasing an angry god or spirit. 

Cowboys and cowgirls will not eat popcorn or peanuts on rodeo day.

Some racehorse owners were very superstitious about popcorn, and would not allow popcorn to be eaten, especially out of boxes, in their boxes on race day.

from Wikimedia
Unpopped kernels are called "old maids." A young woman wouldn't want to get a lot of those in her bowl, since each unpopped kernel represents one more year of being single. 

a few popcorn "charms: 
A jar or vase of popcorn, decorated with a red ribbon, and placed on a windowsill or near a sink is supposed to bring wealth to your home, especially if you do an incantation over it. 

Mix popcorn, thyme seeds and brown sugar. Throw the mixture into the four corners of your room--this is supposed to attract lovers to you. (Although I think they'd be less than charmed at the mess in your room from this!)

Martin Brodeur, the Cornell University hockey coach  at one time, ate popcorn out of the Stanley Cup after his team won in 2003. 

In southern Louisiana, children did something like trick-or-treat on New Year's Day; often their "treat" was popcorn fixed in a variety of different ways. This custom continued until the 1960's--seems a shame that it died out. 

In Vance Randolph's book of Ozark superstitions, he mentions popcorn in his section about funerals. A father, he said, gave his children popcorn to eat as they sat at the side of their dead mother. That gives me shivers.

There are a few popcorn tall tales too, like this one in the book The Harvest Story:Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen by Robert T. Rhode. "Lewis Cline of Battle Creek, Michigan asserted, "The weather was extremely hot. On one side of the fence was a herd of cows, and on the other a field of popcorn. It got so hot it popped the popcorn and the cows saw it and thought it was snow and froze to death." "

A jar or vase of popcorn, decorated with a red ribbon, and placed on a windowsill or near a sink is supposed to bring wealth to your home. 

Some interesting links about popcorn:

From NPR, a history of the kernel

A Paul Bunyan tale

More folklore and history, and a good list of children's books about popcorn

A funny story of using popcorn as a bribe for a safe walk home in this collection of Louisiana folktales.

Popcorn seems to be a popular topic for storytellers in Louisiana; this story combines a river witch, politics and popcorn.

So there you have it, more fact and fiction about popcorn than you ever wanted to know. But a fun read for this gray, cold, rainy day. Think i'll try to make another batch, but this time, I'll use a little less corn!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


hart said...

This is a great post. Learned more that I thought there was to know about popcorn. One of my children's favorite memories is me lifting the lid from the popcorn pot to see what was taking so long and several popping out, so funny we did it every time.

Michelle said...

Popcorn is a favorite treat of my daughter, now a teenager. I did know a few of these things about it, but not all. Have a great week!

Quinn said...

I grew a small patch of organic popcorn last year, but haven't tried popping it yet. A bit concerned that it may have dried too much. Will have to test it soon.

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