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Popcorn Gets Its Moment On The Red Carpet

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Popcorn and movies (or the Oscars) go together like Batman and Robin. And nowadays, options stretch far beyond plain or buttered.

Food critics call one brand the Rolls Royce and another the Prada. They are designer labels for the simplest, most American snack food.

Gourmet popcorn was named one of the top five trends to watch at the specialty food trade show this winter. There's popcorn covered in chocolate, infused with bourbon, seasoned with curry. Flavor of the month at Popcornopolis in Los Angeles? Strawberries and cream.

And if you want to make your own fancy popcorn, there are seasonings: chili, lime, dill pickle. Kernels come in ruby red or indigo blue. And don't be surprised by the popcorn buffet at the next wedding you attend.

While popcorn may be trendy, it's hardly new. Archaeologists found ears of popcorn in New Mexico that may be 5,000 years old. Most Native Americans made popcorn long before the Europeans landed. The first settlers took to it right away, and some Colonial families ate popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast.

Portable popcorn machines appeared at fairs and carnivals in the late 1800s. Then, the vendors flocked to streets where nickelodeons showed movies all day. But when fancy movie palaces opened, the owners resented the tacky popcorn tracked on the plush carpets of their grand staircases.

The Great Depression was popcorn's big break. Cash-strapped movie theaters lowered their standards, brought concessions inside, and a star was born.

World War II sugar rations sent popcorn sales into the stratosphere. Without candy, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual. Then television lured people away from the movies. By the 1950s, people were popping corn in their kitchens.

Popping corn is different from the sweet corn we eat on the cob. Inside a hard hull is soft starch and a little water. When heated, the moisture turns to steam and the kernel bursts.

Popcorn — without the chocolate and saturated fat — also plays a starring role as a health food. It's low in calories and fat, and high in fiber.

Americans eat 16 billion quarts of popcorn a year. That's 52 quarts per person. And most of the world's popcorn grows in the U.S. We love our popcorn.

Given its resilience and flavor evolution, popcorn certainly has given a performance worthy of a lifetime achievement award.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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