Popcorn — a delicious snack that’s been popping into people’s mouths for close to 8,000 years — has its own National observance day.
That’s right; Jan. 19 is the National Day of Popcorn.
The origin of the observance isn’t clear, some have said the day is in connection with the Super Bowl (because popcorn and football go hand in hand, right?) but others haven’t agreed with that explanation. Either way, it’s hard to argue that popcorn isn’t a great, crunchy snack.
And someone, long ago, discovered that if you combine salt, sugar and oil to the kernels as they pop, something even tastier emerges — kettle corn!
The actual origin of kettle corn is murky, but as the story goes, farmers and cowboys in the Midwest made their own variation of kettle corn by throwing rendered fat into a cast iron pot sitting over the fire, and when it was hot enough, they tossed in some corn kernels, something sweet like molasses or honey, and viola! they’d created a crunchy, sweet and salty snack that even today has people lining up at craft fairs and festivals to enjoy.
Local kettle corn maker, David Serpa, fell into the kettle corn business as a way to make money when in between jobs but discovered it wasn’t as easy as it looked and there was a knack to making the snack.
Luckily for him, he seemed to have the touch.
“A person can’t do it one time and just know it,” Serpa explained, admitting his first two batches he’d burnt but his learning curve was swift under the tutelage of the kettle corn master he’d purchased the business from. “It’s about timing, watching, listening…there’s definitely a knack to it. I have no idea how it works, really. I just seem to know.”
With something of an intuitive gut instinct, Serpa has managed to wow the people who’ve tasted his brand of kettle corn — and he’s not sharing his recipe, either.
“It’s a little of this, a little of that. It’s a simple recipe but there’s a way to do it and I’m not going to share that,” Serpa said, allowing just one small, but important, trade secret. “I use a cast iron kettle, not aluminum, which makes the oil burn hotter and expands the kernels more.”
And it’s hard work, not without its hazards. In fact, Serpa has a few battle scars from hot oil and flying red-hot kernels.
“Oh yeah, once I got hit right on the lip,” he said. “Burnt me pretty good. Even my helpers up at the front have been hit with hot oil or popping kernels. You have to be careful.”
His 12-year-old daughter often helps him at shows and festivals, making it a family affair.
“I try to make it fun for the people who help me,” Serpa said. “And we do have fun when we go to the shows because we get to see different people and different things. It’s people watching while you’re working.
“And,” he added, “it’s an adventure because not everything goes right and you have to be ready for anything that goes wrong.”
Thinking on his feet is necessary when there’s a line of 30 people waiting for your product and suddenly, a much-needed part goes down on your equipment. Serpa has handled that scenario before without breaking a sweat — and everyone walked away with their tasty snack.
He said car shows are his best venues at the moment, as people usually want finger foods that they can carry and munch on while they peruse the cars on display.
“They don’t really want to sit down with a hamburger. They want to be able to move around,” Serpa said.
Word of mouth has been good for Serpa, even though he does this as a side business.
“People say it’s the best they’ve ever had but I don’t know,” Serpa said with a humble shrug. “It’s good. Word of mouth has been very positive.”
Serpa said he makes caramel kettle corn for his family members, but he’s not ready to put it on the menu just yet.
“I haven’t quite perfected it,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into the preparation.”
In the meantime, his family will simply have to remain his private testers for his tasty kettle corn creations.
Somehow, it’s doubtful they’ll mind.
According to Popcorn.org, an industry-funded generic marketing and research program, here are some corny facts:
• Americans consume some 16 billion quarts of this whole grain, good-for-you treat. That’s 52 quarts per man, woman, and child.
• Compared to most snack foods, popcorn is low in calories. Air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories per cup. Oil-popped is only 55 per cup.
• Popcorn is a type of maize (or corn), a member of the grass family, and is scientifically known as Zea mays everta.
• Of the six types of maize/corn — pod, sweet, flour, dent, flint, and popcorn — only popcorn pops.
• Popcorn is a whole grain. It is made up of three components: the germ, endosperm, and pericarp (also know as the hull).
• Popcorn needs between 13.5-14 percent moisture to pop.
• Popcorn differs from other types of maize/corn in that it has a thicker pericarp/hull. The hull allows pressure from the heated water to build and eventually bursts open. The inside starch becomes gelatinous while being heated; when the hull bursts, the gelatinized starch spills out and cools, giving it its familiar popcorn shape.
• Most U.S. popcorn is grown in the Midwest, primarily in Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri.
• Many people believe the acres of corn they see in the Midwest during growing season could be picked and eaten for dinner, or dried and popped. In fact, those acres are typically field corn, which is used largely for livestock feed, and differs from both sweet corn and popcorn.
• The peak period for popcorn sales for home consumption is in the fall.
• Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it’s popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.
• Popping popcorn is one of the number one uses for microwave ovens. Most microwave ovens have a “popcorn” control button.
• “Popability” is popcorn lingo that refers to the percentage of kernels that pop.
• There is no such thing as “hull-less” popcorn. All popcorn needs a hull in order to pop. Some varieties of popcorn have been bred so the hull shatters upon popping, making it appear to be hull-less.
• How high popcorn kernels can pop? Up to 3 feet in the air.
• The world’s largest popcorn ball was created by volunteers in Sac City, Iowa in February, 2009. It weighed 5,000 lbs., stood over eight feet tall, and measured 28.8 feet in circumference.
• If you made a trail of popcorn from New York City to Los Angeles, you would need more than 352,028,160 popped kernels!