Saturday, October 7, 2017

How did the Indians "pop" corn?

One of the characteristic American foods is popcorn--a treat made by heating kernels of certain species of maize, which quickly release their stored water and turn into white, fluffy, and tasty inside-out morsels.  We're told that American Indians treated the early settlers from England to popcorn and showed them how to make it.

But how did they make it?  I didn't start to think about that until I saw the Townsend video to the left of this post.  

I thought about the different ways I've made popcorn.  

Most of the ways I've used to pop corn involved heating popcorn in oil inside a covered pot.  The very first popcorn I made was "Jiffy Pop"--sealed popcorn inside a tinfoil-covered pieplate with a wire handle attached.  One shook this tin plate periodically while heating it over a stove burner.  Today's Jiffy Pop uses partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and maybe the original did as well, for all I know. "TVTime" popcorn gave you a tube of solidified palm oil and (I think) coconut oil that could be dumped into one's own pot to heat.  Microwave popcorn works on the same principle, except the corn and solidified oils are placed inside the microwave inside a sealed paper bag.  Later I found, by experiment, that heating popcorn in just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot works well too, and gives a pleasant flavor to the finished product.  Electrical hot air poppers were invented in the 1970s, but did not become as widespread as one might expect, possibly due to the greater convenience of microwave popcorn.

But the American Indians didn't have electric hot air poppers.  They also didn't have soybean oil, coconut oil, palm oil, or olive oil--none of those plants originated in the New World.  I don't know whether they had butter, but even if they did, using too much melted butter on popcorn--let alone popping the corn in it--tends to make the final product soggy.

So what did they use?  Animal fat is a possibility, I suppose, though wild game--which is what the American Indians ate when they ate meat--isn't particularly rich in fat.

The Townsend video above suggests, and demonstrates, a plausible answer, which it credits to a pamphlet published by, of all people, Benjamin Franklin.

According to Ben, popcorn can be made by heating the corn in a dry kettle filled with clean sand or salt!  First you heat the kettle with the sand or salt in it.  When the sand or salt is hot enough, you stir the popcorn into it, continuing the stirring until the corn is mostly covered by the sand/salt.  Continue heating the filled kettle.  The heat in the sand or salt will transmit itself to the corn, popping it.  When you judge the popping process to be done (judging in part by how many kernels pop through to the surface), you remove the pot from the heat, filter out the sand (or salt) with a fine-mesh metal sieve or, failing that, a wide-mouthed basket.

The advantage of this method is that you don't need a lid to confine the corn--the sand or salt works well for that.  And if you use salt, it's not a problem if some of it sticks to the finished product (unless you're watching your sodium intake).
 
I enjoyed this tiny exercise in attempting to deduce how the first Americans might have made popcorn.  It's a good illustration of how one has to consider technologies that would have been available to a culture for cooking in attempting to deduce how foods were made.  

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