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Our boy scout troop is in the middle of popcorn selling season. In August, at the beginning of the sales season, I asked a simple question. “How long does it take to make microwave popcorn?”
They said three minutes or two minutes or even, “there’s a popcorn button on the microwave and it senses when you’re done, so whatever that is.”
They were way off. It takes thousands of years to get to that microwave popcorn. You just need to look beyond that button on the microwave.
The scouts seemed unimpressed, but I explained that they only see the time it takes to make the popcorn in the microwave. I wanted them to think beyond the immediate and understand the foundations upon which the popcorn pops. If you don’t ask questions and think and learn about the past, it could cost you.
It takes one growing season to grow the popcorn kernels that go into a bag. It takes another season before just to grow the seeds to plant to grow the corn that becomes popcorn. There’s all the work to make sure the crops are planted, fertilized, and watered. No one thinks about the work taken to harvest and combine the corn so that it’s ready to be graded and then dried to about 14% moisture from about 35% moisture.
Once dried, Popcorn kernels are mixed with cooking oil, seasonings, and natural or artificial flavorings in a sealed microwave-safe paper bag. The bag had to be specially designed with a metal patched weaved at the bottom of the bag so that it heats evenly and expands from flat to allow the popcorn to expand and let steam out as it pops. Microwave popcorn didn’t even get sold until the early 1980s.
Going even further back, it took someone, probably sitting around a campfire, to see that a particular type of corn would pop. Only the “Zae mays everta” variety of corn can be popped, but, over time, it’s expanded to about 100 different strains of this variety corn developed by people like Orville Redenbacher. The first evidence of popcorn dates to about 3500 years.
Corn was native only to the Americas. The Columbian Interchange brought corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and other crops to Europe, Asia, and Africa, while the Americas received citrus, apples, bananas, coffee, wheat and rice, among others to the Americas. This movement had a great impact on the reduction of hunger and famine as the expansion of food crops diversified.
As food sources became more plentiful and transportation of the crops moved longer distances, corn was sorted and graded for its different uses and sold in larger units. This began the development of commodities markets in places like Chicago. Technology for farming grew over time from human and horse-driven to tractors to GPS-programmed farm equipment where farmers can binge watch Netflix from their air-conditioned planters and combines. The growth of agricultural and transportation markets freed up more people from farming and allowed for the further development of technology and industry that allowed.
Coming out of all of this is the technology that led to cars and airplanes. As airplanes filled the skies, especially during war, you need to think about tracking them in the air. From that comes the development of radar. One day in 1945, a researcher at Raytheon was testing magnetrons, the high-powered vacuum tubes inside radars that produced microwaves, noticed that a peanut butter candy bar in his pocket was melting. He thought about it and started testing how the microwaves affected other foods, including popcorn in a sealed metal box. From this, Raytheon patented the “Radar Range”, the first microwave oven.
Microwave ovens only work if you have electricity. Ancient Greeks were the first to recognize static electricity in about 600 B.C. by rubbing fur against amber, but English physician William Gilbert used the Latin word “electricus” to describe the force that certain substances exert when rubbed against each other. Founding father Ben Franklin did early experiments with electricity. Alessandro Volta discovered that the chemical reactions that could produce electricity and built what he called a voltaic pile or an early electric battery. Within one century, as scientists were learning how to generate electricity, there was a competition between Edison and Tesla to determine if the country would be wired with alternating or direct current.
Over the last century and a quarter, the world has been wired and connected more closely than ever. And, like the scouts, we take it all for granted. If there’s ever an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that takes out the electric grid, we’re going to lose those microwave oven and TVs. We’re going to have to go back and learn things we’ve forgotten like knots, lashings, making a fire in wet conditions, farming, blacksmithing, and a whole lot of things we won’t be able to look up on our phones on the internet.
The time it takes to make microwave popcorn is just a small amount of time it takes to cook the popcorn. We can’t take it for granted and we need to read and learn about the past. We can’t ignore all the time and effort it took to get us to this point in civilization where we can have popcorn at the push of a button.
But really, this is just a long way of saying, contact your local cub pack or boy scout troop and order some popcorn. We need kids who know how to tie knots and lashings and can start fires in wet conditions in case that EMP ever happens.
I’m sure there’s also some poor popcorn kernel who didn’t ask anyone about past sales and didn’t read that you can’t return the unopened cases of peanut butter cup popcorn for credit. By this time, I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to sell you some at cost.