February 22 – Top of the Pops

Today’s Factismal: Popcorn was introduced to Europeans in 1630.

If you were an English colonist in the 1600s, life was pretty tough. Most of the colonists were religious refugees who weren’t welcome anywhere in Europe. They faced sea voyages that could stretch out for three months and were filled with rough seas, little food, and poor sanitation; it was not unusual to have a third of the colonists die on the voyage or shortly after reaching the shores of the colony. Once they were in the colony, they faced cruel winters, hostile neighbors from other colonies, and constant, back-breaking work that made the sea voyage look like the lap of luxury.

But they still made time to celebrate significant events, such as the arrival of new colonists. And that’s what happened in Boston in 1630. A ship carrying colonists and supplies from England has made it safely across the Atlantic, and the colonists gathered to celebrate their good fortune. Being the neighborly sort, they invited the local Indian tribes to join in. And being good guests, the Indians brought along a variety of hostess gifts ranging from deer meat to roast, to turkeys to fry, to popcorn to eat.

You can imagine the amazement of the colonists when white blossoms started popping up on what appeared to be knobby sticks of wood that Quadequina had tossed onto the ashes. The colonists had never seen the like; corn is the only grain native to the Americas and was not found in Europe. Because the colonists didn’t know what the Indians called the miracle grain and because their generic word for grain was “corn”, they called it popcorn. And the name has stuck ever since. (Can you imagine calling it “popmaize”?)

Popcorn turns out to be just perfect for popping because of the way that the kernels of corn are formed. From the plant’s point of view, having seeds be a bunch of starch with a little moisture wrapped in a hard shell makes sense because it gives the seeds a better chance to grow and thrive. The starch feeds the new plant as it grows leaves, while the moisture lets it start out even when things are a little dry. And the hard shell keeps insects and birds from eating the seeds. From a person’s point of view, that design is great because the hard shell keeps the starch inside while the water turns to steam; once the steam pressure has built up enough, it bursts the shell and cooks the starch into a frothy pile of yummy goodness.

In the 383 years since Europeans were introduced to popcorn, it has grown into one of the world’s favorite foods. Instead of eating it with sugar and cream for breakfast, as the colonists did, we now eat it with butter and salt at the movies or grind it into chips for snacking by the television. And scientists have developed several new types of popcorn that pop more consistently and have a better taste than the original.

Of course popcorn isn’t the only plant that scientists continue to try to learn more about. If you or a student that you know is interested in learning more about tomatoes from space, then try the Tomatosphere project:
http://www.tomatosphere.org/

3 thoughts on “February 22 – Top of the Pops

  1. Popcorn is definitely among my favorite foods, and I never knew the full story about why it popped before now. Thanks for the informative, interesting read!

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