This Folktale Explains The Origin Of Popcorn Balls

Typically served seasonally from October through Christmas, popcorn balls are sticky, sweet, and a bit salty — perfect as a nostalgic autumn treat or for playing an impromptu game of catch (if you so desire). The popcorn ball is an American classic, though it's popularity is said to have peaked sometime from the early-to-mid 20th century (via David's Vintage Recipes). Although not as popular now as it was in the by-gone days of 1950s trick-or-treating, the popcorn ball is still an old-fashioned, easy-to-make snack. The recipe is just popcorn, corn syrup, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and butter formed into a sticky sphere (via Karo).

But what is the story behind the popcorn ball anyway? It's well-known that popcorn has been enjoyed by many cultures for centuries — long before Charles Cretors turned it into a surprisingly healthy American snack craze with his first popcorn machine in the late 19th century (via Cretors), but who came up with the idea of turning popcorn into balls?

Just as even the greatest American inventions have some whimsical folklore to their creations, so too does the popcorn ball. If the story is true, perhaps we have the wild weather of the American Midwest to thank for the creation of this salty, sweet treat.

Were popcorn balls made during a freak weather event?

According to a folktale (via What's Cooking America), popcorn balls were not the creation of human hands but were instead the result of a freak weather event. The story goes that at one point during the late 19th century, Nebraska was undergoing what is known as the "Year of the Striped Weather," a period where intense sunshine and tremendous rain could occur simultaneously. On one Midwestern farm, the strange weather conditions supposedly had a surprising effect on the fields of corn and the hills of sugarcane being grown.

The intense, "scorching sunshine" supposedly caused the fields of corn to literally pop into fluffy, white kernels, while the constant downpour "washed the syrup out of the sugarcane." The watery syrup coated with the freshly-popped corn, creating balls as the mixture slid downhill. Some of these popcorn balls even grew to be "hundreds of feet high," according to the legend. Perhaps most unbelievable of all, the story also claims that "grasshoppers ate them all up in one day." 

Of course, it doesn't take a veteran skeptic to tell you this story may not be all that true. It's actually part of a series of culinary folklore tales collected in Nelson Algern's America Eats, so it indeed may just be another colorful American legend told generations ago by farmers and country folk. Although, with how weird the weather can be in Nebraska, you may never know.