Popcorn. The very idea means a celebration, even if it is a small one of taking a night off and watching a movie. Making it was also a bit of fun. Three tablespoons of popcorn, two tablespoons of oil, then heat is added and magic happens. Fluffy white, like snowflakes in reverse – coming up from the pan and striking the lid. I remember in college putting the pan in the middle of the floor on a hot plate and then trying to catch the flying kernels in our mouths.
As I watched the kernels popping in the deep pan, I wondered how many times over the course of history that others had repeated the same magic. Magic conducted in kitchens by mothers wanting to delight their children. Magic happening around a fire, where the kernels were covered with oil and the cobs placed close to the heat and popped, kernels still attached to the cob. These were not only eaten, but also used for adornment – in women’s hair or in headdresses. I wished I could travel through time and taste the corn these women cooked.
Corn poppers originated in Peru. Corn traveled faster to Peru than pottery, though it had further to travel. (the first pots in America are thought to have been made in Brazil) The ingenious Moche developed vessels for popping corn. Tracing the origins of corn is more difficult than finding the pottery because the climate is wet and humid and the kernels are not apt to be well preserved unless the climate is dry, but the poppers were first vessels used to pop the corn. Found on the northern coast of Peru, “Ancient popcorn poppers were shallow vessels with a hole on the top, a single handle, sometimes decorated with a sculptured motif such as a cat and sometimes decorated with printed motifs all over the vessel.”
This evidence lends credence to the importance of corn in Peru at a very early date, although it was not a dietary staple due to the small size of the cobs. According to The Smithsonian:
“Some of the oldest known corncobs, husks, stalks and tassels, dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago were found at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru’s arid northern coast. The research group, led by Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Duccio Bonavia from Peru’s Academia Nacional de la Historia, also found corn microfossils: starch grains and phytoliths. Characteristics of the cobs—the earliest ever discovered in South America—indicate that the sites’ ancient inhabitants ate corn several ways, including popcorn and flour corn. However, corn was still not an important part of their diet.”
It is assumed that corn traveled from Mexico to South America, where it may have been bred with other crops. Farmers chose the seeds carefully from season to season, breeding the best characteristics. Climate and soil also play a role. According to Tim Dillehay:
“These new and unique races of corn may have developed quickly in South America, where there was no chance that they would continue to be pollinated by wild teosinte,” Using a technique called genetic archeology, researchers are trying to determine the ancestral origins of corn. They know that one of the important ancestors was teosinte, a grass that grows in Mexico. It is easy to show this ancestral link by cross pollinating modern corn with the teosinte plant:
There are 5 areas in the genome (groups are called genes) that control the major differences between teosinte and corn. Researchers are working to trace the lineage of modern corn crops back to their ancestral roots. In South America corn blossomed into 1000’s of varieties; some with large kernels, some that have colors, some are purple.
Hope sprung up in my heart. The work is being done to trace the origins of corn, to rediscover the original varieties. It might be possible to taste the magic that once only existed in around fires Peru.
Popcorn is still magic for the people of Peru as evidenced by the words of David Knowlton, “it is … found for sale on every street corner and in the bus terminals. From five in the afternoon popcorn sellers move into the street to sell to the people ending their work day and moving through the streets, either on their way home or just enjoying a “paseo,” a stroll. Some vendors push mobile poppers with them to their “puesto,” their established place, where they sell both salty and sweet popcorn. Others carry baskets with plastic bags stuffed with recently popped corn.
While the salty form has become the most common, the sweet is very Peruvian and has its audience. While the salty just has salt sprinkled on it after popping, the sweet has sprinkles of colored sugar balls, the same ones added to Cuzco’s Holy Week empanadas to give them color.