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Cooking With Popcorn  

Mention popcorn and most Americans think of theaters, sporting events, circuses and their microwave ovens. By far the largest use of popcorn is as a confection. However, popcorn also has a long history as a cookery ingredient.


While conducting a computer search of the National Agricultural Library's holdings, I misspelled popcorn, leaving a space between the "p" and the "c." On the computer screen, out popped Mary Hamilton Talbott's Pop Corn Recipes, published by the Sam Nelson, Jr., Company of Grinnell, Iowa. Popcorn had long been viewed mainly as a snack food. Few processors realized its possibilities as an ingredient in general cookery. In the preface to this 1916 cookbooklet, Sam Nelson urged readers to use popcorn "with various dishes for regular meals, as well as for entertainment, for an evening by the fireside, or upon the occasion of 'company' to whom you wish to present something new, or at least unusual." And truly unusual were the recipes in this booklet. It included over thirty-five recipes categorized under breakfast dishes, desserts, salads, soups, sandwiches, pies, candies, meat substitutes, and with vegetables. Incorporated into all recipes was Nelson's "Amber Rice Pop Corn."

Nelson had sold popcorn since he was a child. Early on, he recognized the need for a superior grade of popcorn, so he began a trial and error breeding program. The eventual result was his "Amber Rice Pop Corn," which he proclaimed to be the best popping corn on the market. By 1916, Nelson's company was one of the largest popcorn processors in America. As Nelson's price for his popcorn was higher than his competitors, he had to convince price conscious consumers that his premium popcorn was worth the extra cost. Among his promotional activities was Talbott's cookbooklet. It was the first pamphlet published exclusively focused on popcorn cookery. Unfortunately, a few weeks after Pop Corn Recipes was published, Nelson traveled to Chicago, where he died unexpectedly. After Nelson's death the company declined and was liquidated by the family.

Despite the tragedy, Nelson's cookbook set new directions for popcorn cookery. It was the first popcorn cookbook, but not the last. Dozens have been published during the last eight decades. Among the more famous recent works are Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book, published in 1984, and Ursla Hotchner's Newman's Own Gourmet Popcorn Recipes. Redenbacher's book was vintage Orville. It featured his own popcorn autobiography as well as recipes. Many recipes were purportedly created by family members, such as "Nina's Favorite Topping," composed of chili powder, paprika, and onion powder. He published recipes to appeal to the palates of college students, such as a "College Corn Bowl" with chicken flavored-broth mix, poultry seasoning and celery seeds. He also presented some unusual popcorn combinations with whitefish and a birthday pie composed of strawberry-flavored gelatin and vanilla ice cream. Like others before him, some of Redenbacher recipes were flavored with purportedly ethnic ingredients from around the world: dry taco mix; soy sauce and ginger; and Italian herb dressing. Ursla Hotchner's Newman's Own Gourmet Popcorn Recipes consisted of unusual combinations with polenta, sherry, Roquefort, pesto, Weiner schnitzel, spinach, buckwheat, strawberries, apples, peaches and other fruit.

I must admit that I was skeptical about using popcorn as an ingredient in recipes. At firstI began experimenting due to the obligation I had to test recipes that were to appear in my Popped Culture book. However, as I began exploring, I was surprised. Popcorn has different characteristics than does corn or other grains. Some popcorn recipes produce different and unusual foods. Give them a try. You may be pleasantly surprised as well.

ChefTalk.com › Articles › Cooking With Popcorn