Another Thanksgiving myth would have us believe that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the magic of popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. It didn’t exactly happen that way, then or later.
While corn was ubiquitous in the Americas, that doesn’t mean the natives or the colonists popped it. First of all, not all corn pops. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that not all corn pops well, only the relatively few varieties that have hard, thick hulls. The type we eat has too thin a hull to contain the pressure necessary to cause a puffy explosion.
According to the Department of Agriculture, there is ample evidence that Native Americans in South America, Central America, and the southwestern part of the U.S. ate popcorn more than 2500 years ago. But no evidence exists for it in Massachusetts or Virginia or any of the Atlantic colonies. In the archives at Colonial Williamsburg there are letters going back to 1950, asking the historians that very question, and the answer has always been, “no references to popcorn in Virginia.” As for Massachusetts, the type of corn those Indians grew was the Northern Flint variety which does not pop well. And according to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no trace of popcorn has been uncovered in regional archaeological excavations.
In his book Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Smithsonian, 2001), food historian Andrew F. Smith traces the Pilgrims-and-popcorn myth to the 1880s, a time of heavy immigration when national myths were being created by magazines, newspapers, and school curricula to Americanize the newcomers. “Popcorn was sold in grocery stores, popped at fairs, and peddled at sporting events,” he writes of those years. Written references to popcorn seem to begin in the mid-19th century. The first known popcorn poem appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1853. It did not become commercially significant until the latter part of the 19th century. Look at this interesting advertisement from a magazine called the American Agriculturist, dated February 1866. It offers popcorn for sale as a novelty item. Regular local corn must not have popped well, because J. A. Hathaway imported this from Brazil and acclimated it in Cincinnati for two years. The company offers 150 grains for 25 cents, so you could grow your own. Get 6 to 15 ears to the plant!
But the popcorn myth is repeated endlessly in children’s textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. Smith calls it a “twice-told myth.” “Undocumented food stories are the grist of newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even works which purport to be true histories. Myths gain reality through repetition, and unfortunately, almost all modern food writers from James Beard to Waverly Root have colluded by repeating them.” He points to several popcorn myths that have no archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever: Columbus found popcorn in the Caribbean; American Indians attached religious significance to popcorn; colonial Americans ate popcorn as a snack; and Indians in what is today the eastern half of the United States ate popcorn in pre-Columbian times.