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Garden in the City: Miracle Ear of Popcorn Ripens, Will It Go Pow or Pfft?

By Patty Wetli | August 28, 2015 2:53pm | Updated on August 31, 2015 9:28am

LINCOLN SQUARE — So, when I said my entire crop of corn had been annihilated by squirrels, that wasn't 100 percent true.

Ninety-nine percent, but not 100. My James Frey apology tour will commence shortly.

Truth is, I actually managed to salvage a lone, beautiful unripened ear that somehow survived the assault of marauding critters and emerged nearly unscathed. Though the creatures had clawed the husk open, they seemingly lost interest mid-attack, leaving the kernels unmolested.

[All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

I've been coddling this miracle ear at home the past couple of weeks, hoping that in the safety of my kitchen's rodent-free environment I could coax it into becoming the popcorn it was meant to be. (Popcorn, by the way, is specifically planted for that purpose. It's not culled from some sweet or feed corn reject pile.)

I watched with mounting optimism as the kernels gradually changed color from a light buttery yellow to a gorgeous garnet red. Just like the picture in the seed catalog had promised.

Highly unscientific touch tests confirmed that the kernels were hardening and losing moisture, which is key to popcorn development. A little bit of moisture (roughly 15 percent) is a good thing — it creates the steam that causes popcorn kernels to explode, growing to 40 times their original size. But too much or not enough liquid will make the kernels go pffft.

How the average home grower is supposed to measure moisture content escapes me. I relied solely on instinct — when the ear looked and felt like popcorn, I deemed it ready for shucking.

I totally shredded my thumb loosening the surprisingly sharp kernels from their pods. If all my corn had been allowed to reach maturity, I would've had three to four of these ears per stalk — and that red could've very well been blood.

Did Orville Redenbacher sacrifice life and limb like this?

My total "harvest" ultimately amounted to a scant tablespoon. It would be enough, I figured, for a decent sized bowl of popcorn. Enough to wash away the bitter taste of a corn crop decimated two years running.

People have been popping corn for nearly 6,000 years, dating all the way back to ancient Peruvians who roasted cobs over coals or flames until the kernels erupted.

It's a myth that popcorn was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, but there's no questioning the food's popularity with Americans. Illinois has even named popcorn the state's snack food.

It was Chicagoan Charles Cretors who figured out how to mass produce the stuff. He debuted his steam-powered popcorn wagon at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and to this day C. Cretors & Company is a leader in the popcorn concession business.

I've dabbled with my share of machines over the years but after getting burned, literally, by fiery kernels spewing from a faulty air popper, I've gone unplugged. The old-school technique of heating oil and kernels in a kettle on a stovetop seemed particularly fitting for my homegrown popcorn, which bore little resemblance to the bulked up product churned out by Act II or Pop Secret.

Here's how corn pops: The kernel, which is actually a seed, is surrounded by soft, starchy material encased in a hard shell.

Under high heat — approximately 400 degrees F — the starch expands, pushing on the shell. When the shell reaches its pressure point ... kapow! It turns inside out and voila, fluffy popcorn.


I heard my first kernel rocket off the kettle's metal lid.

Ping, there went a second, and then, ping, a third.

I waited for the rapid-fire powpowpowpowpowpowpowpow that typically follows the initial volley.

Ping. Pause. Ping.


I gave the kettle a shake.




There's no guess work when it comes to popcorn. Success or failure is not only visible, it's audible.

My batch was obviously a dud. I turned off the burner and took the lid off the kettle. Only about 12 kernels had burst. The rest remained stubbornly resistant to change.

Where did I go wrong?

I turned, as always, to the Internet's vast community of gardeners for answers.

"Leave the cobs on the plant until they are fully mature, otherwise your popcorn may not pop!" warned the Green Urban Living blog.

Well thanks Janet Luke from New Zealand, where apparently squirrels don't exist.

Next please.

"Allow the kernels to dry in the field as long as possible. When harvested, the kernels should be hard and the husks completely dry."

This from the Iowa State University extension, where they really ought to know better.

Doomed though the experiment was, I'm writing it off as a win.

I grew an ear of corn, all the way to adulthood. I had 12 kernels pop.

The squirrels can not claim 100 percent victory.

Ninety-nine percent, maybe, but not 100.

Vegetable plot, week 15.

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