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Popcorn: Indians threw it in the fire, today we pop it with oil

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Popcorn is the favorite snack food of families all over America. We eat it at the movies, ball parks, zoos, and the circus. Yet a lot of it - about 60 percent - is consumed right at home.

Indians in Mexico were popping corn in clay pots long before the Spanish explorers came to America. Christopher Columbus found the natives of the New World popping and eating corn.

What the Indians did at first was to slide an ear of corn onto the end of a long, pointed stick and hold it over the fire. This would cause the kernels to pop off the cob in all directions. Some of the kernels, however, were lost in the fire.

Another way was to throw the kernels directly into the fire. When the kernels burst, the popped corn would jump out of the fire and onto the ground where it could be picked up.

Popcorn was served at the first American Thanksgiving, according to tradition. An Indian named Quadequina brought a big deerskin bag of it as his ''hostess present.'' In colonial times, Indians often brought popcorn to peace negotiations with the settlers.

Soon the colonists were raising patches of it in their gardens, and this variety of Indian corn with small ears and hard outer shell grew in popularity.

In 1885 Charles Cretors of Chicago invented the first popping machine, which was steam-powered. He also devised the wet popper - popping the corn in oil. Traveling salesmen began selling Cretor's poppers, and the popcorn business was on its way.

Popcorn doesn't contain sugar like many snack foods. It's also economical. It takes only a half-cup of popcorn kernels to fill a four-quart popper. This means , including the oil and salt, you can make enough popcorn to feed the whole family for about 30 cents.

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