From the Homestead Kitchen: “Popcorn Ought to Be More Popular”

by Jennifer Scerra

“Many an adult has carried over his or her fondness for popcorn from childhood days and can eat fresh, hot buttered popcorn any day in the year.” Pasadena Post, 17 December 1930.

Mmm, so true. I do fall solidly into the category of people who have loved popcorn from their youth. But if nostalgia—or the bright, buttery smell—or chilly January weather—or this amazing and moody front cover of a 1920 bulletin from the Department of Agriculture aren’t enough to tempt you into making popcorn, then I don’t know how to convince you. 

Luckily for everyone feeling a craving, popcorn is easy to make, cheap, and nutritious. “Popcorn ought to be more popular,” said the San Francisco Examiner on 2 Nov 1913. And don’t just take their word for it—the United States’ government agreed. So, when I say that popcorn is a delight, it isn’t bias. It’s science!

“Why POPCORN Should Be MORE POPULAR,” San Francisco Examiner, 2 November 1913.

We’ve talked before about the US Department of Agriculture’s outreach and educational efforts through their Cooperative Extension Program. Through clubs, classes, and informal educators, they changed and improved the way that American’s grew, prepared, and stored food. The Cooperative Extension was a product of the progressive era, but the USDA itself was founded earlier, in 1862, with the signing of an act by President Abraham Lincoln. 

Starting in the 1880s, the USDA began publishing Farmers’ Bulletins, informational pamphlets containing the latest science and research on a huge variety of topics of interest to rural and urban farmers, breeders, artisans, and home producers. Over the next 100 years, they published more than 2000 of these short but densely informative guides, which were available, by request, to anyone living in the United States. Just by asking, you could learn the latest on how to grow strawberries (901), or roses (750), or loblolly pine trees (1517). You could get advice on controlling pesky moles (1247) or raising Angora goats (573). You could learn to make cream cheese (960), cure a hide (1055), or construct small concrete farm structures (1480). And in 1917, during what they euphemistically termed “present unusual conditions” (they mean World War I), they would teach you all the basics of growing your own vegetable garden at home, thereby saving staple foods for the war effort (871).

Though professional California farmers might have been most interested in irrigating orchards (882) or citrus fruit improvement (794), corn has long been a major crop throughout the United States. So there really were quite a few pamphlets made by the USDA to teach about the many different aspects of corn propagation. A Southern California farmer might have tried their hand at Pop Corn for the Market (554), a crop which the Los Angeles Times said “does well in California” in 1929. And a Los Angeles area family might easily have picked up Farmers’ Bulletin 553, “Popcorn for the Home,” in order to grow and enjoy their own popcorn, or even sell some of the extra to their neighbors. 

Look along the street to the far right side. A popcorn vendor! From the Homestead Museum’s historic collection. 2014.992.1.1.

Is it weird to say that I love the USDA’s many publications because of their design? These little bulletins are like a well-organized magazine or website: they are clear, concise, and have great illustrating figures (five different shapes of corn ears and four different types of hand poppers!). And when all that planning for a garden makes you hungry for some popcorn, there are three recipes in the back that go beyond the earlier tempting descriptions of eating it as cereal with milk and sugar, or tried and true salt and melted butter. 

So, let’s make some popcorn!

Popcorn! Clockwise from lower right: Sugared Pop Corn, plain popcorn, and Pop-Corn Balls (check the recipe below for why this looks nothing like a popcorn ball).

A few words of advice:

Popping the Corn: Since I don’t own one of those fancy ‘20s style baskets for holing over a fire, I made my popcorn using my stovetop and a large, covered stockpot. I did it in batches, using 1 cup of popcorn and a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and cooked until the popping started to slow down. But feel free to use whatever method you prefer or is listed on the popcorn kernels you buy. 

Making Candy: “What?” you say, “I thought we were making popcorn!” We are, but cooking sugar syrups is candy making and we Homesteaders can attest from previous experience that it can feel a little intimidating at first to know how long to cook them for. Check out this nice little guide from The Exploratorium in San Francisco on the look, feel, and temperatures of different stages of cooking sugar candies. 

Adding Salt: Neither of the sweet popcorn recipes I made called for salt, but do not make the mistake of leaving it out. I added a pinch to a few handfuls of each recipe before everything hardened and they were definitely superior.

Chocolate Pop Corn and Sugared Pop Corn recipes from the Farmer’s Bulletin 553, Pop Corn at Home.

“Sugared Pop Corn
Make a sirup by boiling together 2 teacupsful of granulated sugar and 1 teacupful of water. Boil until the sirup strings from the spoon or hardens when dropped into cold water. Pour over 6 quarts of freshly popped corn and stir well.”

This is a pretty nice basic recipe. I had to Google how large a “teacupful” was meant to be, and it looks like something in the ½ cup range. I think as long as you keep the 2:1 ratio between the sugar and the water, you should be OK. 

I saw some variations on this recipe in early 1900s newspapers that called for adding just a bit of food coloring before you add the popcorn to turn your final product red for a holiday. And syrups can be made in a variety of flavors, so I could imagine having lots of fun with this recipe once you have the basics down. 

Family Reviews:

Kid 1: “It’s sweet!”
Kid 2: “I like it” * thumbs up*
Adult 1: “It’s delicious kettle corn. I do feel like I am eating candy.”
Adult 2: “Yum”
Adult 3: “I like the crunchy coating texture.”

Pop-Corn Balls recipe from the Farmer’s Bulletin 553, Pop Corn at Home.

“Pop-Corn Balls

1 pint of sirup
1 pint of sugar
2 tablespoonfuls of butter
1 teaspoonful of vinegar

Cook till the sirup hardens when dropped into cold water. Remove to back of stove and add one-half teaspoonful of soda dissolved in a tablespoon of hot water and then pour the hot sirup over 4 quarts of freshly popped corn, stirring till each kernel is well coated, when it can be molded into balls or any desired form.”

Ooops! I messed this one up. But let me tell you how, so that you do not make the same mistake that I did. 

You will notice from my photo earlier that this did not make popcorn balls, but rather, grainy, sugar coated popcorn instead. My syrup crystalized instead of remaining nice and malleable like you would want in order to form something into a ball. The Exploratorium has another great little page about why this happens, and I learned a lot by reading it. The USDA recipe actually calls for a few ingredients that specifically prevent crystalizing, like the butter and vinegar. Probably my problem was that I reused the same saucepan that I made the Sugared Pop Corn syrup in earlier, and some crystals had formed on the side, provoking the popcorn ball coating to crystalize the minute that I turned off the heat.

The result was a bit like I dumped a bag of brown sugar on some popcorn and called it a day. The texture really made it hard not to feel like you were just eating straight sugar. 

Family Reviews:

Kid 1: “It’s too sugary”
Adult 1: “I’ve never had something where I thought, ‘this is so sweet it hurts my teeth,’ but this might be it.”
Adult 2: “Too bad. I really like maple syrup.”

After all that candy coated sweetness, we still had unused popcorn left over, so, to finish things off we also topped it butter and salt. I’d still like to try some popcorn as recommended as a breakfast cereal, or maybe even make recipe that I found in the 29 February 1928 Los Angeles Evening Post-Record for popcorn pudding. Pop Corn for the Home also makes a passing reference a popular Christmas pop-corn cake, but I couldn’t track down anything that seemed to match that description. In its introduction, Pop Corn for the Home advises that if “every farm home would keep a supply of pop corn and a popper convenient, fewer nickels would be spent for less wholesome knickknacks and more enjoyable evenings would be spent around the family hearth.” With so many popcorn treats to choose from, why not give it a shot?

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