American Plate - Bite #91: Microwave Popcorn

Friday, September 2, 2016
And, the wave of knocking out the easier Bites continues! Part of my interest in the American Plate Project stems from an interest in not just the foods endemic to our culture, but how those ingredients of yore evolved into some of our more modern tastes. Corn is obviously an extremely important part of American food history - so important, that it's the only food to get multiple entries; O'Connell devotes three of the 100 Bites to it. One of those three entries is about the subspecies of corn that explodes into fluffy goodness when it's heated, but despite this Bite's title, popcorn has a history that extends to far before the microwave could even be conceived of.

Native Americans introduced it to Europeans, who heartily embraced it. People began thinking about different ways to enjoy it, whether it was by fashioning wire baskets to cook it over an open fire, sticking bits of it together with molasses or syrup, or stringing it together to use as decoration on their Christmas trees. After the Civil War, the technology of popcorn consumption kicked into high gear, and with each new invention, popcorn got a firm grip on a facet of American society. In 1885, the steam-powered popcorn maker was devised, which led to its popularity at stadiums and arenas. In 1925, the electric corn popper came along, and was immediately adopted by the burgeoning movie theater industry. As a cheap snack, the sale of popcorn kept a lot of struggling movie houses afloat during the Great Depression, and it's had a permanent home at the cinema ever since.

In the 1950s, overwhelmed housewives were delighted with the arrival of Jiffy Pop, which was an inexpensive and entertaining distraction for their kids, and required no clean-up. Finally, in the 1980s, microwave technology became affordable enough for the average American household to acquire, and it was only natural that one of the first foods developed for it was popcorn. Once again, it took over, and nowadays, a full 65% of popcorn consumed is by people microwaving it at home.

As you can see, a search of my pantry yielded a couple different kinds of microwave popcorn. There are a lot of flavors to choose from these days, but really, if you just avoid the fake butter topping, it's a pretty healthy snack. It's also fun to experiment with different seasoning blends. People tend to just dust popcorn with salt, but there are tons of things that liven it up, from cayenne to dill. It's found another natural companion in the rise of streaming media, and there's no better way to pass a snowy Thursday evening than by firing up the Netflix, settling on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, and going to town.