Many people believe that popcorn’s origin can be traced to movie theaters. There will be plenty of people buying the air-popped treat at the upcoming Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. However, the story of popcorn is one of those “life is stranger than fiction” scenarios, one in which the popcorn might have saved theaters from extinction.
Although these days movies and popcorn are inextricably linked — the concession stand at your local cinema is responsible for more than 50 percent of a theater’s total profits — this wasn’t always the case.
Spanish conquistadors were introduced to popcorn by the Aztecs, but popcorn was not a popular snack until the early 1800s. Colonial wives served popped corn with sugar and cream for breakfast, and manually popped corn was a staple of fairs and exhibitions until 1885, when the first steam-powered popcorn machine was invented in Chicago.
Still, movie theaters were determined not to allow their ornate décor to be sullied by theatergoers inadvertently grinding popcorn into fancy carpeting. That was reasonable when silent films were the domain of the upper class, but in 1927, talkies opened the theater experience to the hoi polloi.
By 1930, movie attendance reached 90 million per week and stands were set up outside every venue to sell popcorn to the masses to sneak into the theaters under their hats. Still, it took the Great Depression to prompt theater owners to start selling the popular snack to keep patrons in their seats. Venues that didn’t sell popcorn shut down and business owners realized that if they wanted to stay afloat, they needed to decrease ticket prices and make up the difference selling snacks.
Enter a man named Samuel M. Rubin, who’d been hawking novelty items and pretzels in Brooklyn from the age of 6. By the 1950s, Rubin had become the first person to sell popcorn and candy on a large scale in the city. In his obituary, The New York Times stated that “Sam the Popcorn Man” Rubin was known for “making popcorn in New York City movie theatres almost as popular as jokes and kisses.” Initially, he popped the corn at another location outside of the city, but after he realized the olfactory benefit of increased sales when customers could smell the product cooking, he started to pop the corn in theaters. This bold move firmly solidified the link between movies and popcorn.
Rubin wasn’t the first to realize that selling the profitable snack was a home run. In 1896, German-Jewish immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim discovered how to separate sticky, molasses-drenched popcorn by using a specially designed spinning drum. Peanuts were added, the product was named after a term that in those days meant “excellent quality,” and the Cracker Jack brand of caramel corn became the first official American junk food.
Food manufacturers and chefs alike live and die by the bliss-point matrix — or the optimal amount of salt, sugar and fat that makes a food addictive.
Cracker Jack, with its cute American sailor in cheerful salute posed with his dog, would forever be associated with three things: baseball (the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” mentions the product by name), the treasure hunt marketing ploy of burying a small toy surprise inside each package, and perhaps most importantly, by its craved-for nature. The tagline for Cracker Jack at the time, “The more you eat, the more you want,” might have been the precursor for what modern-day snack manufacturers call “the bliss point.”
Food manufacturers and chefs alike live and die by the bliss-point matrix — or the optimal amount of salt, sugar and fat that makes a food addictive. We’ve all been there — we open a bag of potato chips to just “eat a few,” and before we know it, that evil special formula induces annoying neurotransmitters and receptors to spark pleasure centers of the brain into overdrive.
Much like the brain’s response to drugs, sugar, salt and fat in the perfect proportions can lead to us down a slippery path of calorie overload before our bodies rebel. Inevitably, we are left feeling sick to our stomachs while simultaneously looking for the next hit.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with a recipe for popcorn that manages to hit that spot between sweet and salty without being a body-damaging addiction. Without wanting to sound like an ad for a brand of condoms, I’ve called it the Triple-X adult version of Cracker Jack. I’ve utilized the same principle of bliss-point ratios, but I’ve tapered the quantities of the bad stuff to an almost negligible level.
I won’t tell you it’s not addictive because something this crunchy, sweet and savory is the very definition of the word. What I will say is if you do end up in the cool darkness of a movie theater and you’ve smuggled in this version of popcorn under your hat, like Victorian women used to, you won’t be the worse for wear if you do happen to finish the whole batch.
If you prefer watching films while curled up on the comfort of your sofa, this popcorn might help you reach your own perfect bliss point. Note that stolen kisses in the dark and a toy surprise not included. I’ll leave the most delicious part of this recipe to your imagination.
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin coconut oil,
melted (or another type of vegetable oil,
such as peanut, if desired, but don’t use
1/4 cup top-quality popcorn kernels
4 tablespoons butter, melted and browned
4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
(coconut cream if desired)
2 tablespoons sugar (or equal amount
of granulated sugar substitute)
1/4 cup roasted, salted Spanish peanuts,
with or without skins (optional)
Optional spices that make it Triple-X:
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons nutritional yeast (or grated
1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried
rosemary leaves, cleaned and chopped
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika or chipotle
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Melt coconut oil (or heat vegetable oil) over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot that comfortably will hold 4 cups of popped corn. Add one corn kernel and cover pot with a tight-fitting lid. After you hear the kernel pop, uncover and pour in the remaining popcorn. Stir quickly to coat all the kernels with oil and replace the lid.
Occasionally shake the pot to ensure the popcorn won’t burn on the bottom of the pan, then shake it more vigorously as the popping sounds decrease.
After the popping has slowed to 3 seconds between pops, remove the pot from the heat and place popcorn on a foil- or parchment-lined baking tray or plate.
To make the caramel, using the same pot you used for the popcorn, brown the butter until the milk solids have fallen to the bottom and the butter is a medium golden caramel color — about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and add the heavy cream and sugar. Stir to combine.
Place pan on heat and cook caramel until it’s thick, and a wooden spoon run down the bottom of the pot leaves an empty trench in its wake for a few seconds. Add salt and turn off heat.
Add peanuts and popcorn to the caramel mixture and stir with a wooden spoon, carefully coating popcorn with caramel.
Pour the coated popcorn onto a foil-lined tray and embellish with Triple-X spices to your heart’s content. Feel free to omit spices if you wish, but don’t call it Triple-X. Place the tray of popcorn into the fridge to harden for 30 minutes.
Remove and enjoy with abandon.
Makes about 4 cups.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.