May 24, 2017

Stone Age Snack – A Kernel For Your Thoughts

His/her cornbread ain't done in the middle.


Snowflake or Butterfly popcorn with ‘wings’

Corn Flowers (flores de maiz), Little Doves (palomitas), or Rosettes (rosetas) are some of the 17 or so names for popcorn in Latin America.  This delicious stone age snack resembling whichever once popped.

Of the 60 +/- varieties of corn known to grow in Mexico, only one can pop:  Zea Mays Everta  The others are used to make flour, feed animals, or become the well-known sweet corn aka corn on the cob (also canned or frozen).  Everta, with its one hundred or so diverse strains is the only corn with the right amount of moisture (14%) and a kernel soft enough to pop under pressure.  When the kernel is heated, the moisture within turns to steam, creating enough pressure for the now gelatinous starch, to burst and turn itself inside out.

One strain of popcorn pops up into a butterfly or snowflake pattern and another looks like a mushroom. Caramel popcorn manufacturers usually use the mushroom-style popcorn because it’s denser and less fragile and better able to maintain its consistency during the coating and packaging processes. Butterfly or snowflake-style popcorn with its protruding wings, is the most popular for snacking. It is thought to have a better mouthfeel and tenderness. 

Un-popped corn is called a kernel but once popped, a flake.  When referring to multiple pieces of popcorn it is proper to use the term popcorn, while a singular piece of popcorn is a kernel.  Rice type kernels are pointed at both ends; pearl types are rounded at the top.  Un-popped kernels are called old maids or spinsters.

Popcorn can pop just like amaranth, sorghum, quinoa, rice (puffed more than popped) or millet.

In Mexico, popcorn is most often served with jalapeño juice, hot sauce, cheese, butter, chili pepper, or salt.  Popcorn offers a perfect canvas for sweet or salty cravings.

Popcorn, threaded onto a string, was used in necklaces or headdresses.  Today it is often seen as Christmas tree decorations. 

Let’s back up a bit before we return to today’s popcorn

From cooked over a fire in a dark cave to microwaveable; popcorn's evolution and history is many millennia old.  Popcorn was the first corn in Mexico, domesticated at least 7,000 years ago and probably closer to 11,000 years ago, a subject still debated as discoveries are continuously being made!

Archaeologists have found 80,000-year-old corn pollen below Mexico City. Because this pollen is almost the same as modern popcorn pollen, researchers believe that "cave people" most likely had popcorn.  Remnants of popcorn were found dating back to around 3,600 BCE! Popcorn probably grew first in Mexico, though it was also used in China and India hundreds of years before Columbus reached the Americas.  On a 1,700-year-old painted funeral urn found in Mexico, a corn god is shown wearing a headdress of popcorn. 

The oldest US popcorn ever found was discovered in the "Bat Cave" of central New Mexico. It is thought to be about 5,600 years old.  

In tombs in Peru, archaeologists found ancient kernels of popcorn that are so well preserved that they can still pop.  Popcorn was probably an important part of life, demonstrated by decorated popcorn poppers found there.  Peru’s coastal peoples were preparing corn-based foods up to 6,700 years ago, according to analysis of ancient corncobs, husks, tassels, and stalks unearthed on Peru's northern coast.  The people who lived then cooked corn in several ways: wrapping a cob in an undetermined material and resting it on coals, roasting a cob directly over a flame, or cooking a cob in an earthen oven.  Corn was a delicacy or a minor supplement to the diet, archeological evidence shows they did not eat it in large numbers.

A popped cob is among the ancient corn remains recently found in Peru. By Tom Dillehay

Common folklore indicates that the Native Americans showed the settlers how to make popcorn.  While there is no evidence to substantiate that, it makes for a good story. One thing is certain however, it became a very popular treat during the Great Depression because it was so inexpensive (5 to 10 cents a bag). At that time, sugar was strictly rationed and candy was no longer plentiful.  Thus, Americans ate three times as much popcorn during that period.  People all over the world have been eating it regularly ever since.   

Europeans learned about popcorn from Native Americans. When Cortes invaded Mexico, and when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, each saw natives eating popcorn. Common ways to cook popcorn in those days were to hold an oiled ear on a stick over the fire, then chew the popped kernels directly off the cob, heat sand in a fire then stirring kernels in the hot sand until they popped or place kernels on a tassel and then put them in boiling fat or oil until they would burst.

Dress made of popcorn, hot peppers, citrus, pineapple, seeds, etc.
Latin America University (ULA)
Aztecs used popcorn during ceremonies.  Several young women would dance a ‘popcorn dance’ with popcorn garlands on their heads.  They also used popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues of their gods. 

Natives throughout the Americas also made popcorn beer, popcorn soup, and popcorn breakfast cereal.

Today’s popcorn

Even though Mexico is the country of origin of all corns, including popcorn, less than 2% of the popcorn eaten in Mexico today is grown here. Since NAFTA (for more info see other post here), the enormous majority comes from the US with a much smaller portion imported from Argentina.  Today, many thousands of years after Mexico's great-great-great-grandparents (many more times great) domesticated maíz palomero, 95% of all popcorn grows north of the Mexican border.  Thankfully, there is finally a resurgence of Mexican grown popcorn.  Grassroot organizations are hoping to save native popcorn from complete extinction. 

The non-profit Organización Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana was founded by Rafael Mier and celebrated its first birthday in November 2016.  In this short time, they have accomplished a lot and have many followers on Facebook (over 265,000 at the time of this writing).

Two of the first beautiful ears of maíz palomero toluqueño (popcorn from Toluca, Mexico)
that the preservation team harvested in late September 2016. 
Maíz palomero (Mexican popcorn), seed sourced and sown in the State of Mexico.
One ear of maíz palomero in hand – how tiny.
Popcorn, however, has been hybridized, not genetically modified.
There is NO GMO popcorn.  

After thorough investigation and many miles traveled to small towns around Toluca, a great source of Mexican popcorn in the days, it was discovered, to much chagrin, that nearly no one had kept any seeds from previous plantings.  Mexican popcorn was truly on the verge of extinction.  Finally, fifty-year-old seed were shared by CIMMYT, an international seed bank near Mexico City, possibly saving the fate of this now rare corn.

These tiny dehydrated olotes (corn cobs) - each 2-3 inches long were discovered in 1965
in the cave near Coxcatlán, Puebla, and are on exhibit at the Tehuacán Museo del Maíz (Corn Museum).
These corn cobs are carbon-dated to approximately 5,000 B.C.E.
All photos copyright Mexico Cooks! unless otherwise noted
Mier explains, ‘The United States is the leader in popcorn production, the popcorn business in that country has dedicated itself hugely to the grain’s development. Mexico could have the same power. We are only lacking programs that push a viable cultivation of the varieties that are in Toluca, Chihuahua, and Jalisco. With those, we could satisfy the national demand.’

Today’s popcorn – a small update

Head of the country’s largest Mexican cinema chain says Donald Trump’s impending free trade renegotiations may force Mexico to buy popcorn from Argentina.

Sources:, Dolores Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. 

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