Popcorn Persistence

Ken Farmer

You probably never give a lot of thought to the famous popcorn snack. Instead, you reach into the cabinet for a bag of microwavable popcorn to toss in the microwave and wait a few minutes for it to be ready. It rarely burns if you cook it at the recommended time; it comes out hot and ready to eat. Then, pour it into the bowl and head to the couch to munch it!

Like me, you never give it a second thought. You enjoy!

Well, simple popcorn has a lot to the history and background. It started in the south, and by the 1840’s it had a foothold in the American snack world.  

In the late 1890s, Louis Ruckheim created Cracker Jack from popcorn, peanuts, and molasses. It has remained a popular snack, with its famous prize inside. Now owned by the Frito Lay Corporation, it remains tied to baseball and was mentioned in the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”!

In 1959, the product “Jiffy Pop” came on the scene. It featured a unique aluminum bowl that expanded from the heat, and you were now able to be entertained while fixing the popcorn!

Though the first microwave was invented in 1946, the appliance didn’t become commonplace in American kitchens until the 1980s—a match made in heaven for popcorn, which popped just as well in microwavable packaging as it did on the stove. 

According to a New York Times report, it was an undeniable hit: Within two years, microwave popcorn was available nationally and brought in $53 million in sales. By 1984, a shelf-stable version hit stores*, and sales climbed even higher. Americans bought $250 million worth of popcorn in 1986, setting off an all-out battle between snack food companies that attempted to corner the market.

Unfortunately for Nabisco and General Mills, one agricultural scientist had already become an unlikely popcorn king among men: Orville Redenbacher, a skinny, bespectacled man from Indiana with an immaculate suit, bow tie, and swoop of silver hair. Redenbacher was a Purdue-educated farmer who became famous for tinkering with hybrid varieties of corn. In 1965, Redenbacher and his research partner, Charlie Bowman, successfully created a kernel that would expand twice as much as the yellow corn Americans were familiar with. They called their hybrid “snowflake” for its shape and ability to expand to 40 times its original size.

Redenbacher was responsible for transforming the popcorn industry and still holds. For example, the “snowflake” hybrid Redenbacher and Bowman developed accounted for 45 percent of the total microwave popcorn market at the time of Redenbacher’s death in 1995.

One of the amazing facts is that Redenbacher spent 40 years of his life growing and changing his popcorn before he was satisfied with the brand. His persistence paid off as his popcorn brand is still the most popular band. Persistence does pay off!

If Redenbacher can take four decades to “get it right,” then believe in your idea and stick with it!

Stay Safe, July 2022

https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/popcorn-history/

https://www.history.com/news/a-history-of-popcorn

https://www.seriouseats.com/popcorn-history-movie-theaters

https://www.popcorn.org/All-About-Popcorn/History-of-Popcorn

https://www.orville.com/about-us

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at ken.farmer@dhs.gov.

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