news from up the creek


Surprising facts about a POPular snack.


Kernel of Truth

What Americans call corn, and the rest of the world calls maize, originated in Mexico in ancient times. Corn is planted in spring, and its earliest domesticated varieties were popcorns; many native North American people ate popcorn as their principal food. The other types of corn — corn for flour or animal feed or ethanol — developed later. We tend to think of an ear of corn as the sweet corn we buy at the market or those colorful ornamental ears ... that is, a cylindrical shape with 10 or a dozen rows of blocky kernels. Popcorn, which is closer in form to its wild ancestors, comes on ears shaped more like pine cones, and the kernels are sharply pointed rather than blocky. Removed from the ear, the kernels are shaped like teardrops.

Popcorn is surprisingly nutritious, even more so than many fruits and vegetables. It is high in protein, antioxidants, and iron. In comparison, modern intensive breeding of corn for high yield, uniformity, and industrial use has resulted in varieties with significantly diminished nutritional value. This is an example of plant breeding that has led from a healthy food — popcorn — to a radically unhealthy food — high fructose corn syrup.

Fortunately, corn breeders have mostly left popcorn alone. (An aside: English is a powerful language, but we lack a word for a single, cloud-shaped, popped kernel of popcorn. I will borrow the Spanish word for this: palomita, which means little dove). Breeding of popcorn has been aimed primarily at increasing the size of the palomitas and increasing yield in the field. The typical popcorn that you find in the grocery store is not the only kind, however; many other varieties exist — some red kernels, some black — the seeds of which can be obtained from upstart seed companies. These varieties have much smaller palomitas but interesting, nutty flavors. In modern commercial varieties of popcorn, breeding for size and yield has inadvertently been accompanied by loss of flavor.

It is not just in the breeding laboratory, but also in the kitchen that we can make a healthy food unhealthy. Movie-theater popcorn, popped in palm oil, drenched with salt and butter, and supplied in oversized buckets, is the opposite of healthy. Even worse is kettle corn, where popcorn is loaded up with sugar, salt, and fat, the common destiny of snack foods.

Native peoples popped their popcorn on hot rocks or in hot earthenware vessels. We now have the advantage of the air popper, in which a stream of hot air does the work without adding any fats. At our house, we drizzle olive oil onto air-popped corn and add a splash of paprika. Open a bottle of ale to go with it, and there's dinner. It is unfortunate that popcorn (like peanuts) has been relegated to the world of snack foods, when there is no reason why it couldn't be the main dish of a healthy meal.

Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.


Beautiful Corn, by Anthony Boutard (New Society Publishers, 2012), is a delightful work describing the history, ethnobotany, culture, agronomy, and gastronomy of corn, including popcorn, sweet corn, cornmeal, and corn flours. The author is a scholar, a cook, and a farmer (in Oregon), and he writes beautifully and authoritatively. His subject is the traditional, ethnic, and homestead varieties of corn, rather than their modern industrial descendants. Both gardeners and cooks will find this worthy and fascinating.