Going to town on Saturday night in mid-20th century small town America often included a bag of freshly popped corn, the intoxicating aroma emanating from Main Street storefronts or the local movie theater.
Popcorn is an undeniable part of most people’s memory, whether you stirred the tiny handle of your grandparents’ cast iron lidded pan on the stove top or wedged a giant bag between you and your sister while watching rented movies. Annette Bockman, owner of Just Pop’d Popcorn, agrees. “I have always loved popcorn and grew up with that being a family favorite snack while we gathered to watch a movie or The Carol Burnett Show.”
Popcorn, available in both white or yellow kernels, is a smaller and harder form of flint corn, which has less soft starch than dent corn (field corn). Because all that is needed to transform these kernels into an edible treat is fire and cured kernels, people have been popping the fiber-rich, healthy snack for centuries.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, savvy farmers capitalized on the simplicity of the popular snack, and the lucrative crop soon earned the nickname “prairie gold.” Dr. Orlanda Whitfield, owner of Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn, shared her reasons for the crunchy snack’s popularity, “Because it’s easy and light, popcorn is a growing multi-billion dollar industry. There are a lot of people that love all kinds of flavors of crunchy popcorn.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ears of corn intended for popping are grown, cured on the stalk, picked, and then dried until each kernel contains around 14 percent moisture. When exposed to heat, that moisture expands, causing the kernel to burst into the final product.
Different types of kernels fill varied needs: yellow corn pops up about a third larger than white but contains more hulls. White corn has fewer hulls and is more tender with a better taste. Mushroom corn is a rounder shape, and butterfly kernels take up more space.
Vic’s Corn Popper, owned by Vic and Ruth Larson, uses pure corn oil, flour salt (also known as popcorn or powder salt), and Nebraska-grown kernels at its Omaha factory. Yellow mushroom kernels are used for all flavored varieties—the round shape pops and remains intact, standing up to flavor coatings when taking a spin in the vat.
Whitfield learned to make tasty popcorn from her grandmother at age 11, eventually using that knowledge to start a small business. With a small crew, Still Poppin makes its popcorn in the shared kitchens of No More Empty Pots. Using corn sourced from Conagra, the team uses both yellow and white corn depending on the desired flavor profile.
Flavored popcorn likely started with the sticky caramel corn stirred by kids in cozy kitchens of grandmothers but has since blossomed into creative combinations such as the popular Omaha Mix (grandma’s caramel corn smothered in cheese) offered at Still Poppin. The business now offers more than 40 different flavors.
No stranger to complex seasoning blends, Whitfield is inspired by a wide variety of cuisines, including favorites such as Italian, Thai, and Jamaican. “The variety of palate makes life interesting, doing different things, trying different things. When I get sweet, salty, and spicy in the same bite I know it’s good.”
The names of the tasty bites at Still Poppin are inspired by the North Omaha neighborhood. For example, Deuce, a decadent blend of bourbon-infused maple caramel popcorn and pecans is inspired by a gentleman selling pecans on 24th Street (affectionately known as “the deuce”) during Whitfield’s childhood. Future flavor offerings include a collaboration with local favorite Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering to create a popcorn using its no salt oven fried chicken seasoning blend.
With over 250 flavors made fresh in store sans preservatives, it’s easy to see why Just Pop’d Popcorn has remained popular since opening in 2010. Ingredients such as cookies, candy, chips, chocolate, nuts, and more are combined to create unique textures and tastes. The team at Just Pop’d creates at least one new flavor a month, typically named after or inspired by movies.
The longest running popcorn store in the area, Vic’s Corn Popper, has been a labor of love for the Larsons since 1980. Former teachers, today the couple own four stores and operate a web presence. Vic Larson shared his experience, “I’ve used so much of what I’ve learned as a teacher and public school administrator in operating a business—being well organized, having patience. You’ve got to work hard and be on top of things.”
Popcorn is a popular fundraiser, and Vic’s Corn Popper averages 3-4 donation requests per day. According to Larson, “We donate to area schools, Boys Town, churches, youth organizations, and club sports.” Patrons are grateful for the generosity but also find they enjoy the popcorn at events and find their way to the stores to purchase a bag or two for personal enjoyment. Whitfield and her team at Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn also support local fundraising efforts and requests, providing popcorn to local youth organizations to raise money for equipment/traveling.
Popcorn is often chosen as a gift for any occasion, especially around the holidays. Visit these popcorn purveyors’ stores or websites to grab a bag of a favorite combination or sample new flavors. Lucky for local popcorn connoisseurs, the snack isn’t fading away any time soon—as Bockman of Just Pop’d Popcorn said, “We plan to just keep popping.”
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