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(Credit: Patrick Ho)

Film

How did Popcorn end up as the cinema snack of choice?

@Russellisation

The white fluffy puff of a popped corn kernel is indeed a strange snack, hard yet soft, sweet yet salty and tasty yet bizarre bland. Certainly quiet in their consumption, there must be more to the simple sweet snack that makes them the top-billed choice of cinemagoers across the country, grazing on a box of the white stuff whilst consuming the latest Hollywood fodder. So with sweets, chocolate and even hot dogs all vying for your attention in the foyer, why is it that popcorn remains so consistently the cinema snack of choice?

To answer that obscure question, we’re going way back to the origins of the very first popped corn over 7000 years ago in 4700 BC. Beginning as a wild grass called teosinte in southwestern Mexico, corn was cultivated as a domestic crop, with evidence to suggest it was popped as a simple food going back 6,700 years ago. Thanks to the ease of its preparation, popcorn became a versatile, nutritious and simple food to consume with the kernels being consumed all over Mesoamerica, South America, and North America.

This popcorn likely did not look as familiar as the ‘Butterkist’ we enjoy today, with the corn resembling a crunchier parched version, with the fluffy white stuff as seen in modern times coming as a result of thousands of years of careful corn cultivation. Such parched corn was adopted by the early American settlers, however, who learned to grow, cultivate and enjoy the crop in the 18th century. 

Taking the crop from farms to fairgrounds, one Charles Cretors created a lightweight electric corn-popping device in 1885 that dropped each kernel into hot oil, whilst moving easily through vast crowds and busy areas, forever revolutionising the humble snack. Covered in butter and salt, popcorn became a hit with the food quickly being rolled out by other vendors across America who sold the product at festivals, street parties and sporting events. 

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In the early 20th century a new kind of entertainment caught the attention of popcorn vendors, with a wave of 20,000 movie theatres opening up across America between 1920 and 1930. Gaining millions of weekly movie-goers upon the height of movie popularity in 1925, such venues became irresistible to vendors who set up shop outside cinema’s, unable to trade inside due to venue owners wishing to emulate the elegance and class of the theatre. 

With the advent of cinematic sound, ‘talkie’ movies were born and the golden age of cinema was ushered in with weekly attendees soaring to 90 million Americans in 1930, a boom that was in part thanks to the invention of audible dialogue that didn’t alienate the illiterate population. This new sound technology cost a pretty penny, however, with many smaller venues across the country unable to remain open with the current ‘sophisticated’ identity of cinema that shunned the sticky mess of soda and popcorn. Thus, as the pressures of the Great Depression set in, popcorn became an affordable luxury for struggling families and movie theatres finally allowed vendors to operate in their foyer.

Selling popcorn at a markup between 800 and 1,500 per cent, the selling of the white-balled snack flourished in the mid-20th century helped to keep many cinemas across the country afloat, with many venues even willing to make a loss on tickets to encourage guests to spend money on the sweet (or salted) treat. To this day popcorn remains a highly profitable cinema snack, and even when the lights of the silver screen when out in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, microwaveable maize raked in $922 million, a fact that makes the modest white orbs one of the world’s most enduring snacks.