Yes, there is such a place. It’s a small town, unincorporated, about 20 miles south of Bloomington (home of Indiana University, one of Indiana’s two flagship state research institutions). Quiet, sleepy, bucolic—it’s even given its name to a brand of the iconic snack food (you may have seen Popcorn Indiana brand popcorn in your local supermarket).
AND WHAT OF THE SNACK FOOD?
The Midwest in general—and Indiana in particular—play outsized roles in the story of popcorn, that snack serving as both scourge (remember the war against movie theater popcorn, due to its fat content?) and savior (Air popped! Low fat!) for the calorie-counting cartels among us. Popcorn, a type of corn that puffs up when heated (thanks to residual water turning to steam) is not native to the Midwest. Rather, like other types of corn, it originated in present-day Mexico, from a grain called teosinte, the precursor to modern corn varieties (which, incidentally, looks nothing like today’s corn).
Today, the states producing the most popcorn are Indiana and Nebraska (they seem to trade off the top spot periodically). Nebraska is firmly in the Great Plains, Indiana solidly rooted in the Midwest, so Popcorn the Snack Food is proudly wearing its Flyover pedigree! But there’s more to the culinary geography of popcorn than just where it’s grown. The people are important too!
LOOK WHO’S POPPING UP!
While making popcorn is a relatively simple activity (apply heat and wait for the popping sounds to begin—and to end), producing it commercially, in quantities sufficient to feed numbers of people, is best done with some sort of automated machine. Manual machines were in existence, but they delivered inconsistent products. Enter Charles Cretors, the Chicagoan (but originally from Ohio) who created the popcorn maker (he effectively improved upon a peanut roasting machine, modifying it so that it could also pop popcorn uniformly and consistently). Cretors received a patent in 1893. Today, the Cretors company is still in business (and their offerings have expanded).
Midwestermer Glen Dickson didn’t invent the popcorn machine, but he DID have the brilliant idea of placing them in movie theaters! We can thank him for what is a seemingly classic combination–films and popcorn. Today, it’s difficult to imagine cineplexes without concession stands centered on popcorn. Indeed, the smell can be enough to entice even those who initially had no intention of eating to grab a tub before heading to the movie.
Born in Brazil, Indiana (near Terre Haute), the late Orville Redenbacher is certainly the face of microwave popcorn (although the company also produces plain kernel popcorn). From his ubiquitous bow tie to his stern but goofy black eyeglasses, native Hoosier and Purdue University graduate Redenbacher is probably the most iconic popcorn personality in the United States. His background in agriculture (and science) had Mr. Redenbacher experimenting with hybrids before founding his eponymous company. Although the company was sold several decades ago, the brand still bears his name.
THE MANY POPCORN CAPITALS IN FLYOVER COUNTRY
National capitals, state capitals,… popcorn capitals? No fewer than six Midwestern-ish towns call themselves the “Popcorn Capital of the World”: two in Indiana (Valparaiso and Van Buren), plus one each in Illinois, where it’s the official state snack food, (Ridgway), Iowa (Schaller), Ohio (Marion), and Nebraska (North Loup). Clearly, America’s beloved snack has its heart and soul in the middle of the country!
POPPING YOUR OWN!
Although many of us enjoy our popcorn from the microwave, it’s really not that difficult to make on the stovetop. All you need is oil (coconut or peanut, with high smoke points, seem to work best—canola seems to have a fishy aftertaste for many people and olive oil’s flavor isn’t really compatible with corn), popcorn, and salt. You can certainly add some melted butter to flavor your popcorn after it has popped. Indeed, you can add a variety of flavors–parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast, if you’re vegan), dried herbs, chili powder, whatever strikes your fanciful taste buds! Here are some instructions for making popcorn for 1 or 2 (can be doubled).
Heat some oil (about 2 tablespoons) and some fine salt (about ½ teaspoon) in the bottom of a saucepan (2-4 qt. size, use the smaller for this “recipe”, the larger if you double it) over medium-high. When heated, add 3-5 kernels of popcorn, cover, and wait until they’ve popped. Then add about ¼ cup of popcorn (I like Lady Finger), take off the heat for about 20 seconds, then return to the heat with the lid of the saucepan slightly ajar (to allow the steam to escape—you don’t want soggy popcorn!). When the popcorn kernels slow down their popping (a few seconds between pops), take off the heat and dump into a bowl. Add more salt and some butter, if desired, or create your own flavorings.