Corn confronts you at every turn in Iowa. It blurs past the car window for hours. Stop for gas and you’re likely to find a patch growing out back.
Much of it will fuel cars, feed cattle and sweeten food. But a half-hour’s drive from Cedar Rapids, in front of Gene and Lynn Mealhow’s sturdy farmhouse, ears of corn no bigger than a child’s hand grow from seeds the family can trace back to the 1850s. The small, pearly flint corn has never been genetically modified or hybridized. Its only purpose is to pop into small, crisp puffs that taste of pure toasted corn.
Mealhow, 59, a soil expert who still looks very much like the hippie drummer he once was, spent years driving around trying to sell his precious popcorn. Now, his Tiny But Mighty brand is on the shelves of Whole Foods. For a family like his, that’s akin to winning the lottery.
The Mealhows are part of a popcorn revival, the latest reinvention of an enduring American snack that has been retooled every few generations to fit shifts in technology and culinary fashion.
With the invention of steam-powered poppers and caramel-coated Cracker Jack in the late 1800s, popcorn moved from farm-family snack to cultural novelty. It buoyed the movie industry in the Great Depression. Products like Jiffy Pop, which offered pan, oil and corn in one magical purchase, brought popcorn back to the kitchen in the 1960s. They, in turn, were bigfooted by the microwave oven in the ’80s.
Now, in an era of farmers markets and a do-it-yourself ethos, older popcorn varieties with names like Dakota Black, Tom Thumb and Lady Finger are being popped on the stove in coconut and olive oils, enhanced with just a kiss of fresh butter and fine salt or fortified with rosemary, wasabi powder or nothing at all.
“If you look at craft beers, you’ll see that the same thing happened,” said Glenn Roberts, who founded Anson Mills, in South Carolina, to preserve old strains of rice and other grains. “People are awakening their palates to something that has more flavor and complexity.”
Roberts sells almost 400 pounds of Appalachian heirloom sweet flint popping corn a week. Chefs are his biggest customers, drawn in part by his corn’s sweet, slightly floral taste. But home cooks, too, are rediscovering the joys of making popcorn on the stove (“a lost art,” Lynn Mealhow calls it) and updating it with flavors like garam masala or Sriracha — treating it, in effect, like any other premium ingredient.
“Popcorn is a product that comes from a seed that you can make in your own home and customize,” said Melissa Abbott, the vice president of culinary insights for the Hartman Group, a market research company in Bellevue, Wash. “There’s a real DIY feel to it.”
Still, for a nation that knows the pleasure buried in a tub of movie-house popcorn laced with fake butter or the instant gratification inside a bag hot from the office microwave, the older popcorns are not always easy to love. They cost more, pop up smaller and leave more unpopped kernels than their highly bred commercial brothers.
The reward, however, is popcorn with a better nutritional profile and hulls — the bits that stick in your teeth — that seem to all but disappear. The flavor can be subtle but complex, mixing toast and sweet corn, delivering in taste what the aroma of popping corn has always promised.
The Chang effect
Elite chefs are already smitten. A couple of years ago, Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco simmered popcorn in water and butter, strained out the hulls and called it popcorn grits. The dish had a cameo in the PBS “Mind of a Chef” programs starring David Chang, and the recipe made it into Chang’s cult magazine, Lucky Peach.
When Patterson published it in his 2013 book “Coi: Stories and Recipes,” he chided his tribe for its lack of popcorn skills. “It’s amazing to me how many well-traveled, well-trained cooks have no idea how to pop popcorn,” he wrote.
No one is pretending that artisanal popcorn is about to conquer the mass market. Its growth is so small that those who track the snack industry have no hard numbers on its growing popularity. But they do note that popcorn, which has long lagged behind even the lowly pretzel in America’s salty-snack pantheon, is rallying.
Sales of bagged, ready-to-eat popcorn jumped 27 percent from August 2013 to August 2014, according to the market research firm Information Resources. By contrast, potato chip sales grew less than 3 percent during the same period.
“We’ve been watching this category for the last two years and we keep saying, ‘Wow, it doesn’t seem to stop growing,’” Abbott said.
Farm to bag
Popcorn appeals to several growing constituencies: the weight-conscious, the gluten-free and people looking for healthier snacks. Microwave popcorn remains the favorite, with nearly $900 million in sales in 2013.
And although those sales have flattened, a few companies like Quinn Popcorn, a leading producer of what it calls “farm to bag” organic popcorn, are experimenting with heirloom microwave popcorn that comes with a packet of oil and seasoning. Even the Mealhows will start selling a microwave version this month, despite the objections of Lynn Mealhow, 60, a popcorn traditionalist.
For small farmers like them, popcorn adds a new revenue stream; the crop needs less land and water than sweet corn or field corn.
Theo Bill, an owner of the Sustainable Seed Co. in Mendocino County, Calif., has been working to perfect Red Beauty, which is open-pollinated — that is, pollinated by animals and insects. The seeds can be replanted season to season, unlike modern hybrid varieties, which do not reproduce well over time.
“Our customer base is interested in taste and flavor and texture,” Bill said, “but they also want the ability to save their own seeds and plant them year after year.”
Charlotte Swancy has given over three acres of her Riverview Farms in northern Georgia to an old strain of popping corn she will harvest this month. After letting it cure until the moisture content is at a popping optimum of 13 percent, she will sell it for $2 a pound at Atlanta farmers markets.
Swancy makes a pan almost every day, throwing in some chopped rosemary as it pops, or tossing it with curry powder once it’s in the bowl. She finds the low-tech nature of popping popcorn a respite in an age of digital disruption.
“It’s just a nice thing to have at the end of the day,” she said. “We shut everything down and eat popcorn.”
Tiny But Mighty
Here in Iowa, a sense of history and mission drew the Mealhows into popcorn. Gene Mealhow comes from a family that lost its farmland in the 1980s. He gave up a career in music when it was clear he would need to do something to provide for his four sons. He turned back to agriculture, working as a soil consultant with an eye toward seed selection.
He has a certain genius for making temperamental crops grow well, which appealed to Richard Kelty, another eastern Iowa farmer.
Like a lot of families in the Midwest, the Keltys had long grown some popcorn on the side for personal use and a little profit. Theirs had been passed down from father to son since the mid-1800s, when as best as anyone can tell, the family either found it growing wild or acquired it from American Indian neighbors.
Only a few handfuls were left when Kelty decided to revive it and start selling it. He hired Mealhow to help improve his yield.
The Mealhow family bought the business in the late 1990s, selling the kernels by mail order and in local grocery stores. Gene Mealhow drove hundreds of miles east to Chicago to try to entice managers at Whole Foods, one of whom finally put it on the shelves.
Tiny But Mighty now has eight full-time employees and oversees more than 200 acres in Illinois and Iowa. It has expanded, selling prepopped flavored corn in bags. Whole Foods has lent the company money.
The Orville Redenbacher effect
Over home-canned tomato juice and sweet rolls at the farmhouse breakfast table, Mealhow acknowledged that his was a battle that would not be easily won. America is perhaps too deeply in love with size over flavor.
He blames Orville Redenbacher, a 1928 graduate of Purdue University and a master marketer who used genetic material developed at the university’s Agriculture Alumni Seed Improvement Association to breed a high-volume corn that shifted America’s expectations.
“Orville produced a giant popcorn to be a delivery vehicle for butter and salt,” he said. “He convinced the entire world that was the way to go. But it doesn’t taste like anything.”
“Maybe,” a friend at the table suggested, “you need to become the Orville of heirloom popcorn.”
The farmer shook his head. “I don’t want fame and fortune,” he said. “I just want people to know it’s out there.”
Tips for Popping Heirloom Corn Varieties
Cooking a pan of popcorn is so simple and satisfying that I’m always surprised when people say it seems like too much trouble. The results are far superior to anything that comes from a microwave or a bag.
“It’s amazing how confounded people are,” said Wendy Boersema Rappel, a spokeswoman for the Popcorn Board. “There is no ratio other than your pan. You cover the bottom of the pan with oil, then add a single layer of popcorn. Then you pop it. There is nothing more complicated about it.”
Still, I’ve discovered that cooking stovetop popcorn well requires a few professional tips and leaves room for plenty of variation. I start with a large, heavy pan that holds 4 quarts. I like 3 tablespoons of fat to 1/2 cup of kernels.
Heat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil over high heat (though other pantry oils, like canola or even olive oil work fine). Add a few kernels. When they pop, take the pan off the heat and add the rest of the popcorn and 1 tablespoon of butter.
(You can also melt the butter in the hot pan after the popcorn has been removed for a more pronounced butter presence, but I find that pouring it on after the fact makes the popcorn a touch soggy.)
Turn the heat down to the medium side of medium-high and cover the pan. When the popping starts, keep the lid slightly ajar to release steam, and shake the pan about every 10 seconds. Some cooks geek out and fit the pan with a foil lid cut through with slits to allow steam to escape and keep all the kernels in.
Soon, the action will slow to a few pops every couple seconds. That’s your cue to take the pan off the heat. In other words, if you are starting to wonder if it’s done, it is.
A good sprinkle of nutritional yeast can raise the umami factor. Fresh, aromatic herbs like rosemary or sage can be chopped and added to the oil just before the corn starts popping. After the popping, butter infused with a little hot sauce, or soy and grated ginger, can add character.
But I’m a purist. I finish mine with an immediate sprinkle of fine sea salt or kosher pickling salt and then head to the couch.
Kim Severson, The New York Times