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Why do we eat popcorn at the movies? - Andrew Smith

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Soft percussion and a toasty scent mark the violent transformation of tough seeds into cloud-like puffs. This is the almost magical process of popcorn-making. Dozens of kinds of popcorn are now grown in the US, with different strains assuming distinctive shapes when their kernels explode. So, how did we actually end up with this whimsical food? Andrew Smith traces the history of popcorn.

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All the corn, or maize, we eat today is derived from a tall grass called “teosinte.”  Each of its ears yielded between 5 and 12 small kernels, which had hard outer shells, also called “pericarps.” About 10,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples in what is today southern Mexico domesticated the plant. One variety of teosinte had an unusual characteristic: if the seeds were heated, the kernels broke open and puffed to many times their original size.

Indigenous American people took advantage of this process thousands of years ago. Once the hard pericarp was shattered, they could easily grind the remains into flour, which they could then use to make foods, like tortillas. They cultivated other varieties of maize, selecting for plants with larger, more flavorful kernels and thinner pericarps. They could grind these kernels more easily or even eat them straight off the cob. But the hard-shelled, pop-able variety also persisted and was disseminated through what’s now the southwestern United States and, mainly, Central and South America. Archaeological remains reveal that people in northern Peru were eating popcorn some 6,700 years ago.

For a more detailed history of popcorn, see this book by Andrew F. Smith: Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America.

Interested in learning about other foods throughout history? Check out these TED-Ed videos:

How corn conquered the world - Chris A. Kniesly
How the popsicle was invented - Jessica Oreck
A brie(f) history of cheese - Paul S. Kindstedt
History through the eyes of the potato - Leo Bear-McGuinness

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Andrew Smith
  • Director Mitchelle Tamariz
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Salil Bhayani, cAMP Studio
  • Sound Designer Zavid Lan, cAMP Studio
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Script Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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