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 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. It was not something Indians introduced at the Pilgrim’s harvest feast we now call Thanksgiving.
There is at least one somewhat 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 1850s but written in the 1930s. The author 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. That doesn’t mean no one ever ate popcorn with milk, but it doesn’t seem to have been common or popular enough to call it the “first breakfast cereal.”
12 Responses to Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.
June 30, 2012 at 7:33 am (Edit)
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!
June 30, 2012 at 8:41 am (Edit)
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.”
Pamela Toler (@pdtoler) says:
June 30, 2012 at 10:37 am (Edit)
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.
June 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Edit)
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.
Keith Doms says:
July 4, 2012 at 9:16 am (Edit)
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.
Sei Paulson says:
May 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
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:
May 17, 2013 at 7:39 am (Edit)
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.
Sei Paulson says:
May 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm (Edit)
You sort of… roast it on a griddle? I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to try it. ^_^
deb mcintyre says:
March 31, 2014 at 11:09 pm (Edit)
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!
pavan inr levels creator says:
July 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm (Edit)
I learned about this in grade school. The Native Americans probably did this. They were geniuses with corn.
July 23, 2015 at 7:59 am (Edit)
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:
July 23, 2015 at 8:12 am (Edit)
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!