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Popcorn: From Native Treat to Cinema Snack

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#41 Science in History

22nd February 1630

Today in 1630, popcorn is believed to have been introduced to the European settlers in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts by an Indian named Quadequina.

Popcorn is a type of corn with smaller kernels than regular corn that, when heated, pops and expands to many times its original size.

Popcorn kernels are composed of three main parts: the outer hull, the endosperm, and the germ. The hull is tough and impermeable, which helps to keep the moisture inside the kernel. This is the stuff that gets stuck in your teeth – the stuff that you spend time picking out, even after brushing. endosperm is the starchy part of the kernel that provides the energy for the growing plant. The germ is the embryo of the plant, which contains the genetic material for the next generation of corn plants.

When popcorn is heated, the moisture inside the kernel turns into steam and builds up pressure. The pressure becomes so great that it eventually ruptures the hull, causing the kernel to explode and turn inside out. As the kernel expands, the endosperm becomes puffed up and creates the familiar fluffy texture of popcorn.

The starch content of popcorn is important. Popcorn contains a special type of starch called "amylose" that has a high gelatinization temperature. This means that it requires a high temperature to break down and become sticky, which is what allows the popcorn to puff up without sticking together.

The optimal temperature for popping popcorn is around 204-238°C. At this temperature, the moisture inside the kernel turns to steam and builds up pressure. As the steam is released, it creates a popping sound that we associate with freshly made popcorn.

According to historical accounts, Quadequina from the Wampanoag tribe brought popcorn as his contribution at the settlers’ first Thanksgiving dinner. The Wampanoag had been eating popcorn for generations, and Quadequina likely saw the settlers' interest in corn as an opportunity to establish a relationship with them. The settlers were fascinated by popcorn and quickly adopted it as a snack food. It became so popular that it was sold in markets and became a staple of fairs and carnivals.


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