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September 26, 2021

I can't remember not enjoying popcorn. Whether it was offered as a TV or movie snack, a celebratory food, or a special treat, we were always ready to enjoy our share of the straight-from-the-pan crunchy hot buttery goodness. It was one of the first foods I learned to make on the stovetop.

We had three ways to pop the corn: in a large pan, in the green antique popcorn pot with the crank top, and in a wire basket. The pan-popped with a little oil was my preferred way, as I could never quite manage to successfully pop a batch in the wire basket. My favorite way to pop corn is to use a pan with a glass lid so I can watch the first kernels burst open. It's like magic, and people have been enthralled with this magic for at least 9,000 years.

Popcorn is a type of maize that was first cultivated in the area we now know as New Mexico and then spread in all directions, probably through trade and other ways of sharing by indigenous peoples. Just as corn in general was an important part of the food supply, so was popcorn. It was also a ceremonial decoration. The earliest ears were as small as a penny, sometimes two inches long, and was often popped on the cob. The popcorn was easy to string into personal ornamentation or used to decorate for special ceremonies. Many of us still use this gift as a decoration – especially on strings or in popcorn ball form to hang on the Christmas tree.

I've enjoyed trying the different kinds of popcorn: white, yellow, red strawberry, black, and calico. Each has its own distinctive flavor, but my favorite is probably the special yellow popcorn that pops leaving only a very little hull. It's the hulls that can get stuck in your teeth and sometimes the throat, which is why we are often warned not to give the treat to children under the age of four. I've always enjoyed caramel corn, cheesy corn, and corn drenched in chocolate or marshmallow – it's a versatile base for confections, both sweet and savory.

Enjoying this ancient grain connects us to countless people in the ancient Americas as well as other countries around the world who have adopted it as their own. When I was a child, I always wanted to know why corn popped but no one could explain it to my satisfaction. Dried field corn and "roasting ears" did not pop, only the special popcorn. These days it is easy to learn all about popcorn and how it becomes the edible blossoms we enjoy. The internet is a good source, but I especially like the books that are available. You'll find a few of them listed below. Check it out! 

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Donna Reagan has served as Children's Specialist at the Bellevue Branch Library since 2002. She produces My Storytime Place, a local TV show for young children. The ALA's Every Child Ready to Read initiative forms the foundation of her early childhood programming.