And, for those watching and noshing at home, will it be buttered? Salted? Crisped with a sugar coating?
We’re talking popcorn, which has long played a starring role among movie snacks. Film fans’ love affair with popcorn goes back at least to the Depression, when it was a rare, affordable treat at 5 or 10 cents a bag. Demand soared during World War II, when “sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops,” limiting its availability for confectioners at home, reports the Popcorn Board, an industry-funded marketing and research operation.
Popcorn consumption plunged in the early 1950s, according to the board, when television distracted audiences from movie theaters. It recovered, though, when viewers established new snack habits in front of the tube.
Today, Americans eat 17 billion quarts of popped corn or 54 quarts per person a year, the board estimates. The U.S. leads the world in popcorn production.
Enthusiasm for zea mays everta, its scientific name, dates back centuries in North America. “Cortez found the Aztecs in Mexico adorned in popcorn necklaces and ceremonial headdresses in 1519,” the board reports on its website, and “French explorers in the Great Lakes region watched Iroquois popping corn in pottery crocks with heated sand.” Archeological digs in west-central New Mexico’s Bat Cave turned up tiny ears of popcorn almost 5,600 years old.
With such epic history, popcorn oughta be in pictures. But, outside of a memorable scene in Barry Levinson’s 1982 film “Diner” — involving Mickey Rourke’s character, a date and a surprise in the popcorn box — its most prominent onscreen appearance comes in the 1953 animated concession promo, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.”
If you’re eating movie-theater popcorn, chances are it comes from Preferred Popcorn LLC, a Nebraska-based company that supplies theater concessions nationwide and is one of the nation’s top popcorn producers.
Norman Krug heads the multistate company based in Chapman; in January, he also began a three-year term on the federally authorized Popcorn Board.
Krug, 57, learned to grow popcorn from his father, Robert, who raised it commercially for 45 years and was “one of the pioneers” in the industry, the son says. In 1998, Norm Krug brought together two other local farmers and a cooperative to buy a processing plant in Chapman and start Preferred Popcorn.
Sales volume in theaters depends “on how many people come to the movies,” Krug says. “I don’t have any scientific research to back this up, but it appears that people consume more popcorn at good family movies” — those with PG ratings – “than at scary movies.” That probably rules out the bloodbath that is “Django Unchained.”
Preferred Popcorn exports more than half of its yield to 55 countries, of which Mexico ranks as the biggest market. That country also is the largest outlet for U.S. popcorn growers as a whole – no surprise, given Mexico’s close proximity and its long cultural affinity for the stuff.
On a trip there a few years ago, “I was pleased to see they were serving our popcorn at the Mayan ruins,” Krug says. “The best news for our industry is that exports are growing,” he continues, adding that consumption is increasing in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Preferred Popcorn contracts with roughly 100 growers, primarily in Nebraska and Indiana, where it has processing plants, and in Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and South Dakota. Nebraska is the nation’s top popcorn producer, followed by Indiana. Those states provide the optimal conditions for growing popcorn: rich soil, good drainage and warm, sunny summers.
To realize its full potential, popcorn needs more heat — from a popcorn machine,microwave or stovetop kettle. The drop of water in each kernel expands into steam, pressuring and transforming the surrounding starch until, when the interior reaches nearly 350 degrees, it explodes the hull and releases the steam. “The soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately,” the Popcorn Board’s website explains. “… A kernel will swell 40-50 times its original size.”
Americans are going back to basics with this process, Krug says. “We’re seeing some shift from microwave popcorn to whole kernels” prepared the traditional way — on the stovetop, with a little oil in a covered kettle. “It seems like it’s coming back.”
That may be a consumer response to negative publicity for microwave popcorn. Last year, a Colorado man won $7.2 million in a lawsuit after contracting “popcorn lung” from eating it daily for 10 years. By 2008, the nation’s major producers of microwave popcorn had eliminated the offending butter-flavor chemical, diacetyl. A University of Minnesota study last year linked diacetyl to Alzheimer’s disease. Other experts have flagged microwave popcorn because of the bags, which are treated with chemicals to resist fire and prevent oil leaks.
Movie popcorn got a bad rating in 2009 from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which called it as menacing as Godzilla for some chains’ use of coconut oil (high in saturated fat) for popping and artificial “buttery” oil for topping. The consumer advocacy group hasn’t done a subsequent update, a spokeswoman said.
Krug describes popcorn as “a good, wholesome snack. It depends on what people put on it, and we can’t control that.”
A whole grain and member of the grass family, popcorn is good for grazing if you go easy on the fat and salt. A cup of air-popped corn contains 31 calories and oil-popped has 55, according to the Popcorn Board. It’s also high in fiber and its crunchy hull is rich in antioxidants.
Krug thought he’d tire of eating popcorn when he got into the business, he says, but he still snacks on it almost daily. “I go out to see movies,” Krug says, “and I order popcorn every time.”
For him, it gets two thumbs up.
Chili powder perks up this popcorn mix. Brewer’s yeast powder, or nutritional yeast, can be found in health food aisles or stores. The recipe comes from the Popcorn Board, a trade organization./ Photo courtesy of the Popcorn Board
- 1 quart popped popcorn
- 1 teaspoon brewer’s yeast powder
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 300 F. Spread popcorn on a baking sheet.
Sprinkle yeast powder, lime juice, chili powder and salt over popcorn. Bake about 7 minutes and toss ingredients just before serving. Serve warm.
A sprinkling of coarse sea salt boosts the flavor of this caramel corn. The Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based trade group, provided the recipe. / Photo courtesy of the Popcorn Board.
- 2 quarts popped popcorn
- 1 1/2 cups pecan halves
- 1/2 cup almonds
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Line a large (17-by-12-inch), rimmed baking pan with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray; set aside. Spray a large bowl (not plastic) with cooking spray and place popcorn and nuts in it.
In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, butter and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Clip on a candy thermometer and boil, stirring occasionally, until temperature reaches 290 F (about 15 minutes). Remove candy thermometer and stir in vanilla.
Pour mixture over popcorn and stir to coat well.
Spread popcorn mixture in an even layer into prepared baking pan. Sprinkle with sea salt. Let cool completely before breaking into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container.