Navigation Menu+


Corn or maize for popping; especially a kind the grains of which are small and compact, well fitted for popping. Corn which has been popped, or made by heat to burst suddenly, so as to expand and expose the inner part of the kernel; – more properly popped corn. — Webster, 1882

Now Royal popped corn in the wire hopper at the opened heater door until he had filled a large pan with the crisp white kernels. – Farmer Boy manuscript

There is only one type of corn (maize) that will pop when heated, Zea mays var. everta, a cereal grain widely grown in the corn belt of the United States. Both the Ingallses and Wilders enjoyed popcorn – either as a special treat or as an after-dinner snack on a winter evening. Enjoy some plain, salted and buttered, or try these ideas from the Little House books!

Popcorn balls. Popped popcorn kernels are tossed with candy syrup and then pressed into shape using buttered hands to create a popcorn ball. Below are two recipes from period cookbooks. If you’re not comfortable with candy-making and cooking sugar to high temperatures, you can always melt caramels in the microwave or over low heat and add a bit of corn syrup to thin the mixture, or use popcorn instead of rice cereal when making crispy treat coating out of butter and marshmallows mixed over low heat (molding balls instead of pressing into a pan for cutting).

Take a kettle, put in a tablespoon of lard, render it. Then put in three handfuls of popcorn. Put on the lid and shake well over the fire until done. Fill three times this way; it will make twelve balls. Now take two cups granulated sugar, and three cups water, put in a pan, and let come to a candy; put over the corn while hot; butter your hands, mold into balls. — The Times Cook Book, No. 2: 957 Cooking And Other Recipes (Los Angeles: The Los Angeles Times, 1905), 58.

One cup of molasses, one cup of brown sugar, one tablespoon of vinegar, butter size of an egg. Boil all ingredients until brittle. Pour this over two quarts of popcorn and mold into balls. — The Neighborhood Cook Book (Portland: Press of Bushong & Co., 1914), 269.


Corn-popper. While popcorn can be made easily in any large pan on the stove, a “wire cage on a stick” was a handy device sold which allowed the kernels to be heated over hot coals. Similar poppers might have a metal pan and a wire cover. Heat could pass through the screen wire, but the popped kernels couldn’t escape. A long handle kept the hands and face away from the fire while shaking and allowed the popper to be held at just the right spot in the fire so that the kernels heated but the popcorn didn’t burn.



Popcorn and milk. In Farmer Boy (see Chapter 3, “Winter Night”), Almanzo wants to make popcorn and milk, knowing that a full cup of popcorn and can fit into a full cup of milk without spilling over. How is this possible? Most of the popped popcorn kernel is air, which is released or replaced by the milk when kernels are added slowly. The popcorn gets soggy and mushy, the same way that many breakfast cereals do when left in your bowl of milk too long before eating. In fact, popcorn and milk is sometimes eaten as breakfast food (just be careful not to include any duds or you might break a tooth).

The photograph shown at the top shows a cup of milk and fifty popped popcorn kernels, the amount that filled the cup. Fifty unpopped kernels are shown in the spoon in the other photo (for reference), and the fifty popped kernels have been added to the milk. Unless the cup of milk is filled so full that it is about to spill over the sides (surely Mother Wilder wouldn’t let Almanzo do that!), it’s easy to suggest – as Almanzo did – that popcorn and milk can occupy the same space.



Popcorn strings. If you’re careful, you can poke a threaded sewing needle through the white part of a popped popcorn kernel and slide it along the thread the same as you do when stringing beads. Use the sharpest and smallest diameter needle you can handle and work slowly; popcorn breaks easily. Tie a knot about three inches from the end of a piece of thread about two feet long and stop threading when you have three or four inches of thread left. Multiple strands are easier to tie together into one long length instead of trying to work with a really long piece of thread!

Popcorn strings were traditionally used as garland on Christmas trees. For variety and added color, string a fresh cranberry every few inches. At the end of the holiday season, hang the garland outside from a tree branch and give the birds a treat!



“Like corn popping.” In the Little House books, the sound of firecrackers exploding at the celebration in De Smet (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 8, “Fourth of July”) is said to be similar to that of popcorn kernels bursting. Popcorn “pops” because, when heated, a tiny bit of water surrounded by the starchy matter inside the hard kernel turns to steam, expanding until the pressure bursts through the kernel, creating a noise. The inside expands to form the crunchy, bumpy popcorn that Almanzo Wilder loved to examine before eating!

In On the Banks of Plum Creek (see Chapter 32, “Grasshoppers Walking”), it’s the speed of multiple kernels of popcorn exploding in the popper that Laura Ingalls Wilder uses to exaggerate how fast it seems the grasshopper eggs are hatching.


popcorn (FB 3, 7; SSL 21-22; THGY 17, 25)
     (FB 3, 7; SSL 21-22; THGY 17, 25)
     balls (BPC 31; THGY 25)
     corn-popper (FB 3)
     Laura receives jewel box, mittens, candy, popcorn ball, and furs at Christmas tree (BPC 31)
     and milk (FB 3)
     strings (BPC 31)
     “like corn popping” (BPC 32; LTP 8) – the noise or forcefulness of the kernels exploding