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The snack that explodes from seed to shining sea

Every year Americans blow up Simon Lehe's crop.

It doesn't go off all at once, of course. People explode some of it in movie theaters and ballparks; a good portion goes off at home. Special counter-top machines combust the food cleanly and efficiently, although scalding oil in a big pot can be just as effective.

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For any other type of farmer, all this could be a little deflating. But here in Indiana, the second-largest popcorn producer in the Union, Lehe the popcorn farmer gets a kick out of the popping craze.

The little kernels are generally a light-hearted affair. Moviegoers munch their way through quarts of it without diverting even an eyelash from the screen. Students pop it throughout their college years - some more for diversion from studying than for nourishment. Christmas-tree decorators are not content to explode the stuff. Gathering round to string it together with needle and thread , they pull one another closer too in a kind of yuletide camaraderie.

But if America has ever been guilty of taking this most explosive of snacks with too large a grain of salt, there are signs that this is changing. Not only is popcorn undergoing something of a boom, but hard-headed hybrid research, no-nonsense marketing, and a new respectability are turning the puffy particles into serious sustenance.

Few people really dislike popcorn. They may complain that it turns them into butterfingers or gets stuck in their teeth. But even those who turn up their noses at hamburgers and fast-food fries find something irresistible about the puffed kernels.

With 9.6 billion quarts consumed each year, Americans consume more quarts of popped popcorn (41 per person per year) than low-fat milk (34.1). The comparison is a bit unfair, admittedly, considering the airy composition of the fluffy food. But measured in pounds, its per capita consumption rivals yogurt and is double that of pretzels.

What has happened to create this boom? Fifteen years ago Americans bought only half as many pounds of unpopped popcorn as they do now. If popcorn experts are to be believed (and yes, they do exist) there are several reasons for the popping popularity, including:

* Electric poppers. It used to be simple to pop popcorn. Indians used a variety of methods. They threw the kernels directly into a fire, or set them in shallow clay dishes on top. Up until the 1970s, the technique was still pretty basic for the rest of us--heated oil, skillet of your choice, and plenty of agitation worked fine.

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Then advanced appliances descended en masse onto the market. They brought popcorn into the living room, the dormitory, and wherever an electric outlet could be found. Hot-air poppers, which followed the boom in hot-oil poppers and now outsell them, have made the cleanup even easier. Some brands even sport a seal of approval from the Chicago-based Popcorn Institute, founded 39 years ago.

* Gourmet popcorn. Not so long ago, the public would have laughed at the idea. But with slick advertising, some companies are unabashedly affixing this label to their product (there is even a generic brand gourmet popcorn). To many, the product may not be all it's puffed up to be. But there are at least some aficionados who claim to be able to taste a difference.

Last November, for example, a Denver man went to jail after smuggling his own popcorn into a movie theater. He claimed the theater's brand was inferior and ignored the management's threat to call the police over the bootleg popcorn. His brand was gourmet, all right. It was sold under the name of the man who is to popcorn what Frank Perdue is to chicken.

Once you're on the subject, you can't escape Orville Redenbacher, easily the most popular purveyor of popcorn. Redenbacher, who himself grew up on an Indiana farm, set out to develop the world's most perfect popping corn. The effort took him through 41 generations of hybrids.

What makes one pop better than another? Water, essentially. A moisture content that's too high or too low can drastically reduce popability and can lead to a charcoaled kernel. Researchers call it success when kernels pop 30 to 40 times their original size. Popcorn also is specially crossbred to produce kernels with tight skins. Then, when heated, the water inside turns to steam and pressure builds to a minor explosion . . . Pop . . . and voila, a hybrid earns a reputation.

After his research, Redenbacher gave all of popcorndom another large boost with his television ads. In 1978 Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc., which had bought out Redenbacher's company, featured him in a $6 million campaign. Not only was this several times the advertising budget of the entire industry at the time, it marked the first national promotion of popcorn, says C. William Blodgett, the company's director of corporate relations.

''I think the 5 or 6 million (dollars) that Hunt-Wesson spent has helped everyone in the industry,'' says Richard Lintner, vice-president of sales and marketing for Weaver Popcorn Inc., in Van Buren, Ind. ''People see the ad, and they might buy any (brand of) popcorn. But Orville's (or Hunt-Wesson's) paying for it.''

Meanwhile, Mr. Lehe says he is getting more admiration than stifled smirks these days when he reveals his popcorn-farming profession. ''You tell people you grow Orville Redenbacher popcorn, and they say: 'Yeah, we've seen that.' '' (He does admit, however, that his daughter in Santa Monica gets quite a ribbing as ''the popcorn lady.'') To consumers, used to seeing the end-product's effortless performance, popcorn still may seem a little trivial. But down on the farm, it's dead serious.

Every year about this time, Simon Lehe and the elements play a waiting game here in Brookston.Outside, rippling pools of water dot the vast, flat land, telling even a newcomer that the fields are still too wet for spring planting. In anticipation, Mr. Lehe's three sons - Dick, Don, and Dale - prepare the machinery.

Inside, their father sits in a small room next to the barn, waiting for hot sun and cool wind to evaporate the water. When they do, perhaps in a week, his first job will be planting a third of his 2,150-acre farm with popcorn.

Talk about the crop brings no wry smile or twinkling eye from Mr. Lehe. Like the field corn and soybeans he also grows, the projected 1,500-ton popcorn crop has its own pressing problems, its own special needs.

Popcorn on the store shelf can take a lot of heat, but in the field it's fragile stuff. Plant it too deep, and the tender shoots can't push through the soil. When strong winds blow, popcorn stalks are the first to fall over.

''You have to baby it along,'' admits popcorn farmer John Larimer. While an acre of regular corn yields an average 110 bushels, popcorn produces only 56.1, according to last year's figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But for the patient, the combustible corn can earn a pretty penny. Because the crop is grown on contract and demands special care not needed by regular corn, prices usually are high and steady. While open-market corn prices slumped last year and averaged $2.45 a bushel, popcorn earned $7.45, the USDA says. In the eight years Mr. Lehe's been growing popcorn (he's been a farmer since World War II), the crop has always turned a profit.

Although yields are much smaller, farmers Lehe and Larimer grow a special hybrid that requires harvesting in the ear. This old-fashioned method slows them down a bit, and means hours of back-breaking work to shell the corn later. In fact, popcorn can be so much work that many farmers ''don't want to be bothered with it,'' Mr. Lehe says.

Whether or not he can count on future profits, however, hinges on the crucial question: Can this corn craze continue?

Some 5,600 years ago, the Cochise Indians must have laughed at the spectacle.

Probably placed on stones heated by a blazing fire, tiny popcorn kernels were bursting themselves inside out. Archaeologists don't know how the Indians discovered the phenomenon. All they have found are a few coin-size ears of the popping corn from cave excavations in west-central New Mexico. The find, however , backs up theories that popcorn is the oldest type of corn.

What does this have to do with the present?

Only this: Popcorn's been around for ages and probably will continue to be. When Spaniards were catching their first glimpses of the New World, the Aztecs already were using popcorn for food and to decorate their statues of gods. Christopher Columbus ran across popcorn decorations in El Salvador. Even the Pilgrims got a taste of the popped corn when the brother of Chief Massasoit contributed several bushels to the original Thanksgiving dinner in 1630. By the time of the American colonists, housewives were serving it for breakfast with cream and sugar, which makes popcorn the first puffed breakfast cereal eaten by the white man, the Popcorn Institute says.

Besides that, popcorn has a healthy future because it's so cheap. ''It's an economical product,'' says William E. Smith, executive director of the Popcorn Institute. ''For a dime you can get a nice bowl of popcorn.''

But there lies something deeper that at the same time bodes well and ill for this corny craze.

Popcorn is attractively unpretentious. It not only tastes good, it literally pours out its heart to us. All we do is apply heat and scores of kernels burst out in a single, never-to-be-repeated POP. . . .

But typically, America has taken this simple, somewhat enduring process and built a whole business and technological shell around it. Corporations spend millions advertising their respective brands. Poppers are built bigger, or speedier, or more convenient. And the hype and faddism expand from that.

Nonetheless, it is uncertain whether or not the popcorn boom will continue. Already, Jerrold Schwartz, marketing manager of the West Bend Company, predicts a leveling off, or even a decrease, in company sales of electric poppers.

The hot oil bubbles in the electric popper in the Lehe kitchen.

Suddenly the two test kernels explode, telling the Lehes the oil is hot enough. Soon kernels are bursting all over as the afternoon sun dips lower in the kitchen window.

Talk of sales and profits has given way to a discussion of whether bacon grease or popcorn oil is better on the puffy kernels. Then, as suddenly as the corn pops, Mr. Lehe's eyes light up. ''It's kind of amazing the way it performs, '' he says of the magnificent dance of corn and hot oil before him.

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