Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.

Park Ranger Kevin Hanley wrote: “Outside of the 9 to 5 job, I’m a trustee for a historic Dutch house in Brooklyn. As part of my research into Dutch stuff, I’ve come repeatedly upon a reference to the Dutch use of popcorn. According to the texts, the Dutch didn’t know what to make or do with popcorn. Dutch wives apparently improvised and, supposedly, placed the popcorn in a bowl and added milk. Viola! The first cereal – or so it is claimed. Can you verify or bust this myth?”
     This is a tough nut to crack. First, it’s terribly illogical. Pour milk on popcorn and it instantly becomes a soggy glop. (I’ve tried.) Searching for historical underpinnings to this myth yields nothing in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, but see Myth #70–popcorn doesn’t become significant until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

     There is at least one historical mention of eating popcorn with milk, and it comes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, page 32-33, a book set in the late 1850sShe mentions that young Almonzo (who would become her husband) liked popcorn and milk. “You can fill a glass to the brim with milk and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. Then, too, they are good to eat.” Of course, she also repeats the myth about Indians and Pilgrims and popcorn at Thanksgiving, so she is not wholly reliable. Even if we take her words at face value, she isn’t talking about breakfast cereal; she talking about a science experiment that tastes good.

     The first packaged, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were invented in the 1870s and made of oats and wheat. Cereal took a turn for the better in the early years of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers accidentally invented wheat flakes and corn flakes. None of these cereal pioneers used popcorn, presumably because it doesn’t work well.


15 Responses to Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.

  1. Jean says:

    Thanks for pointing out that the Little House series is not reliable as historical fact. We need to keep in mind that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were written decades after the experiences. The books were also heavily edited by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura & Almanzo’s daughter.

    Don’t get me wrong, the series is wonderful. There are working historians who trace their start interest in the Little House books!

    Keep straightening us out with this blog!


    • marymiley says:

      Thank you, Jean. I’m straightening myself out with this blog too!Lots of things I assumed were true, I’ve found are not, and some things I thought sounded fishy turned out to be true!

      As for the Little House books, yes they are WONDERFUL and inspiring, but that doesn’t mean they are historically perfect. The American Girl series is great too, but perhaps not as engaging because it isn’t “real.”

  2. I can’t speak to when popcorn was first used as a breakfast cereal, but I know my grandfather poured milk on left over popcorn and ate it for breakfast.

    • marymiley says:

      I’m sure it happened on occasion. Popcorn seems traceable back to the mid-19th century. But since there isn’t any evidence for widespread practice of eating it with milk for breakfast, I’d hesitate to call it the first breakfast cereal. It does seem clear that it was not a colonial Dutch practice.

  3. Keith Doms says:

    I remember reading about popcorn being used as a breakfast cerial by the Colonests in the World Book Encyclopedia Young Persons set in the the late 1960s.


  4. Sei Paulson says:

    Could it possibly have been “parched” corn? A recipe for parched corn is included in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (originally published as “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians,” 1917). It’s a little like modern corn nuts, in that the corn poofs out. I imagine in milk it would be a little like corn puffs.

    • Mary Miley says:

      How interesting! That’s a new idea for me, anyway. How does one make parched corn? I always assumed parched corn was just dried corn, but evidently not.

  5. deb mcintyre says:

    We often ate popcorn in milk with a spoon, but as an after supper snack. My grandpas family (who had this tradition) originally came from New York state – just like Almanzo!

  6. I learned about this in grade school. The Native Americans probably did this. They were geniuses with corn.

  7. Sally says:

    My mother ate warm buttered popcorn with milk on it. She acquired this tradition from her father (b abt 1872 in NH). Said it was like Oyster Stew—a salty butter in milk flavor.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Have you ever tried that? Wouldn’t it turn to soggy slop instantly? I tried it once and that’s what happened. Maybe my “recipe” wasn’t the same as your mom’s!

  8. Michael Foster says:

    I am over 70 yrs old.
    My grandmother was born in the 1800’s.
    Her maiden name was VanKirk and she proudly traced her lineage back to the “Mayflower” !!
    She taught me HOW to eat popcorn PROPERLY in milk. Today, very few know this PROPER method, because we have become accustomed to eating breakfast cereal in a bowl with milk. How does one PROPERLY eat popcorn in milk ??
    First, fill a coffee mug (large brim) with milk.
    Have a bowl of popcorn next to the mug.
    Drop ONLY about 5 or 6 PIECES of popcorn into the milk. Then IMMEDIATELY, while the popcorn is STILL MOSTLY CRISP, spoon it out using a large spoon (like a soup spoon) with just a small amount of milk !!
    Continue to ALWAYS drop ONLY A FEW PIECES in the milk, and EVERY TIME, spoon them out IMMEDIATELY, while mostly CRISP !!
    It is the CONTRAST between the CRISP portion of each kernel and the MOIST portion, which ENHANCES this experience BEYOND that which most any breakfast cereal can provide !!
    TRY IT !!
    And just because you cannot find WRITTEN reference to popcorn and milk, does NOT mean that it wasn’t eaten by Pilgrims and others !! WORD of MOUTH, the SPOKEN word, has long been the most UNIVERSALLY used method of communication and transfer of our heritage !!
    Thank you !!!

  9. Sean Glass says:

    Sigh. Popping corn is a cultivar. When you go to a store and buy popcorn it’s something bred to be light and fluffy. Really there are many varieties, some are denser and have thicker hulls. And if it’s microwave popcorn it’s probably already getting soggy. The idea only seems illogical to you because you’re approaching it from an illogical perspective.

    One of my favorite quick breakfasts is with heirloom amish red popcorn airpopped, lightly coated with honey, and then covered with milk. It will stay crunchy about as long as Rice Crispies.

  10. jessrond says:

    I think you people need to realize pouring milk on something doesn’t make it magically turn into health food. Popcorn is better than your oatmeal and your grits.

    I am right, and you are wrong.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: