In the recent documentary King Corn, two guys discover that their hair is made up of carbon originating from corn. From there, they find out that nearly everything they digest, from beef to soda, consists of corn (molecules). But while watching the film, I thought about my own diet. Even if almost all of American food and drink didn't contain traces of corn, my hair would still be made up of the stuff. Why? Because I am a popcorn junkie.
I'm not the only fan of popcorn, but I doubt anybody loves it as much as I do. While working in movie theaters for ten years, I couldn't stop eating the stuff. And I got to eat it all day long for free, so I was often a happy employee. Now that I pay to go to the movies again, I also pay for popcorn. When I watch a movie at home, I make it on the stove. I even prefer the neighborhood bars that offer free baskets of the stuff.
My only wonder about my love is this: where did it come from? Did I grow up loving popcorn because I grew up loving the movies? Or did I grow up loving the movies because I grew up loving popcorn? I'm sure that the snack would still be consumed were it not for movies, but it's certainly possible that we eat more of it thanks to it's being the main staple of cinemas for almost a hundred years. Even when people stopped going to the movies so much, they still wanted corn with their show -- it's just serendipitous how home video and microwave popcorn came around about the same time. Of course, movies are only a little more than a century old. Popcorn has been around for at least two millennia, most of that time eaten by Native Americans. That's why I chose to write about it this week, as we celebrate the holiday in which we give thanks for corn, among other foods originating in America. I don't know if the pilgrims were introduced to the popping variety (I've read they did in fact eat the stuff at the first Thanksgiving, but I don't know if I believe it), but it's still fitting that many families celebrate Thanksgiving with an after-dinner visit to the movies. And don't think all those stuffed moviegoers skip the popcorn -- not that I blame them; I too can eat the stuff on a full stomach, and often do (with some restraint, of course; I don't exactly advocate overeating).
I don't think it's any secret that movie theaters make a significant amount of their money (or "bread") from selling popcorn, which costs only a few cents to make and is sold for 100 times that much. And this should explain how and why popcorn became the main snack sold at the movies. Surely, it's the most profitable food for a concession stand. It's a shame for us moviegoers that theaters need to charge so much for a bag of corn, but it has to be remembered that if we all stop eating the popcorn, the cinemas may go out of business. It helps that nothing else is as good as fresh popped movie theater corn. I consider my own home-popped corn to be just as good (and much better than the awful corn they serve at most Loews and Regal theaters, among others), but of course it doesn't stay as hot and delicious when I transport it to the theater and sneak it in with me. So, unless I'm heading to a Loews cinema, I'm better off buying from the stand anyway.
The funny thing is, popcorn at the movies is said to have begun with people sneaking the stuff into theaters. People would buy corn (and peanuts) from street vendors and then bring them in. This was in the early days, before theaters sold concessions -- and long before they depended on them. Eventually, theater owners realized they could make an extra buck by putting a popper in-house. According to some accounts, popcorn was first sold in cinemas in 1912. However, a Slate.com article from earlier this year stresses that concessions really caught on during the Depression, when theaters needed supplement income. An earlier Slate.com piece, from exhibition expert Edward Jay Epstein, pointed out how theaters really needed the side business of concessions post-1948, following the forced separation of the movie and theater businesses. Supposedly, when movie attendance decreased because of television, popcorn consumption decreased as well (the more recent Slate.com piece mentions that during this time, concessions increased, but both facts could be true). Eventually home popping became popular and America was back to being huge popcorn lovers. Today, it's said we each eat on average about 70 quarts of the stuff per year. I'm likely eating about double that, if not triple.
Aside from being cheap, it seems another reason popcorn became the main sale of concession stands is that peanuts were too messy because of their shells. Eventually soda syrup became another highly profitable sell, and other goods like boxes of candy also became necessary items. I'd rather not acknowledge the modern additions like "nachos", chicken, French fries, etc., which are just as annoying for me as a moviegoer as they were for me as a theater manager. But, alas the concession stand keeps growing. I doubt anything, though, will ever supplant popcorn as the favorite snack of movie fans.
However, popcorn may not continue to be as big a profit to theaters as they once were. Apparently thanks to the interest in ethanol as a substitute fuel, corn prices are increasing. This could be great for farmers (unless their subsidies are affected), but it's awful for the cinemas. Well, I guess it's mostly awful for the moviegoers, since cinemas will just end up raising the prices. But no matter how high the cost of bags get, I'll never stop buying corn at the movies. Will you?