Monday, December 16, 2002

Of Popcorn and the Internet

The Internet, and its best search engines have made a dramatic difference in researching all kinds of facts, and this fact is often extolled. For example a recent David Kippen piece in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that tracing the origins of popular expressions, which was next to impossible before, is now often a simple matter of wading through the Google hits.

It's all true as far as it goes, but the truth is there is still a limit to how far that is, and how revolutionary Internet research actually may be. There is a lot of information that isn't on the Internet, or isn't generally accessible. There are still proprietary data bases and search engines that cost big bucks to use (Lexus/Nexus being the prime example, but there's also the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary for etymologies and origins that go back past the last scouring of web sites on the net.)
And of course there is all the inaccurate and/or contradictory information endlessly replicated as it echoes across cyberspace.

I ran into some of these difficulties in trying to trace down what would seem to be a simple fact--- trying to find a kernel of truth as it were, concerning the origin of popcorn.

I was reading a collection by the eminent contemporary American essayist Edward Hoagland, specifically an essay about a cross-country train trip. One brief aside caught my eye: in recounting his transit through the American Midwest on one of the Amtrak Zephyrs (a route west from Chicago), he produces this catalogue: "A bulldozer factory at Aurora; pig farms at Princeton; the Spoon River at Kewanee. Popcorn was invented in Galesburg. Monmouth is where Wyatt Earp was born."

Popcorn was invented in Galesburg. I don't suppose that would be of more than momentary interest for most readers, but I went to college in Galesburg, Illinois, and I had never heard that particular fact stated before. I knew that Galesburg was the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, that Ronald Reagan lived there for awhile in his boyhood, that Eugene Field, Edgar Lee Masters and Jack Finney (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, etc.) went to college there at least briefly, that Lincoln and Douglas debated there and that it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, that Dorothea Tanning escaped from there to become the only woman surrealist painter in France and to marry Max Ernst and then become an important American painter. I even knew that the inventor of the Ferris wheel, George Ferris, was born there, and that Galesburg had once supplied the nation with bricks. But I'd never heard anything about popcorn.

Still, the place was and in surrounded by corn fields, so popcorn made sense. Then shortly after I read this, I found myself mentioning it in a book review I was writing, on a book about the French New Wave filmmakers. It so happens that I saw my first French New Wave films---in fact, my first non-Hollywood films---in Galesburg, thanks to the Cinema Club at Knox College. The Cinema Club was a student run organization; in fact, a one-student organization, and that one was David Axlerod, who has since been involved in movies and TV. (Unfortunately, there are a number of David Axlerods in the entertainment business, and I'm not sure of his resume. A problem, incidentally, one would encounter when researching on the Internet.)

David and the Cinema Club constituted my first education in film. As I recall, these films were usually screened in the big theatre in the Fine Arts Center. It wasn't a bad venue for seeing movies, but it wasn't a real good one, either. It was an multi-purpose venue, used mostly for main-stage live theatre productions. I saw my first production of Hamlet there, starring a student named Jim Eichelberger, who later became known as Ethel Eichelberger, a theatrical legend on the East Coast. I've seen a half dozen film versions and probably that many stage productions of Hamlet since, but that was the definitive one. That was Hamlet. The only time I acted in Shakespeare (the absolutely key role of the Thane of Ross in Macbeth) was on that stage.

But it wasn't the best place for watching films. Even if it had been, I'm sure my memory of the "foreign films" I saw there would be murky. I didn't know the language. Not just the languages the films were in---French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Japanese---but the film language. It took me a year of just showing up and watching before I knew how to see what I was seeing.

I mentioned this, with much greater brevity, in the first paragraph of my review. I thought it would be amusing to identify Galesburg as the birthplace of popcorn, since these days especially, popcorn is the more reliable pleasure to be found at the movie theatre. So I put it in there as a coy parenthetical, and sent my copy hurtling through cyberspace to my editor's email account.

It was days later that I started having second thoughts. I think it was one night as I was falling asleep, although it may have been just as I was waking up. But it was in one of those regions of foggy illumination that a nagging suspicion that had been in my mind from the beginning forced itself to the surface: that popcorn thing just didn't sound right.

Specifically, I had the image of a popcorn necklace in the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving story. And something about the Mayas. I realized that I knew that popcorn was a Native American legacy, and unless Hoagland's source referred to the Illinois Indians, the Galesburg reference was wrong.

Of course I should have researched it before. I learned at least as long ago as high school debate and probably even in seventh grade not to trust a single source. What does "invented" popcorn mean anyway?

Still, there was probably---here it comes again---a kernel of truth in this corny story. Galesburg probably had something to do with popcorn.

So I went to Google. And therein lies my tale about Internet research.

First I tried "popcorn invented Galesburg." (Google ignores "common words" like "in," so I didn't bother writing "popcorn invented in Galesburg"). Sure enough, several references popped up. One was an article by the travel writer Paul Theroux, an even better known source that Hoagland. There were several others. But oddly, they all said the same thing in almost exactly the same way: Galesburg, where popcorn was invented.

One of the sources was, and I think this is the mother of them all. From what I can tell, Amtrak must supply a list of fun facts about places along the way (I don't think they were doing that when I traveled these routes, which I did pretty often from my college days through the early 1980s.) It looks to me like Hoagland and Theroux were cribbing from the same cheat sheet (especially since that bit about Wyatt Earp comes right after Galesburg in both their accounts, and in the Amtrak p.r.)

I did find one additional bit of information in this search: that the inventing was supposedly done by someone named Olmstead Ferris. Well, there were Ferrises in Galesburg, I knew that from the story of George and his Big Wheel. But a search for "Olmstead Ferris" on the web turned up next to nothing.

So I tried another approach. I typed in "invention popcorn" and "popcorn invented." This yielded a completely different set of sites. They told several different stories. said popcorn was invented by Quadquina in 1630 at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Another site ascribed popcorn to Chinese war lords. But most referred back to the "Encyclopedia Popcornia" at The origin story on this site said simply that Native Americans invented popcorn, and that the earliest fossil popcorn found was dated at 4,000 years old.

Other sites gave different dates and facts, often enough contradicting each other. One site said popcorn was 5,000 years old. Though several said Native Americans simply threw corn on the fire to make it pop, one credited Indians with inventing the first popcorn machine, some 1500 years ago.

Europeans found popcorn being popped by Native tribes throughout North, Central and South America (though its presence at the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving is disputed.) The Aztecs introduced popcorn to Cortes in 1519. Spaniards munched some in Peru in 1650. And so on.

But among all the names and places these sites mentioned, none referred either to Olmstead Ferris or Galesburg. In other words, there were two parallel universes coexisting on the Internet: one in which popcorn was invented in Galesburg, and one in which Galesburg had nothing to do with it at all.

As we all know by now, computers exist to help us waste time. The Internet is an admirable instrument in this effort. After several hours of frustrating and ultimately ridiculous research, I tried a computer age variation of an old research stand-by: I thought I'd ask somebody.

I pretty easily found the Galesburg Historical Society site, and a name to contact. I sent a somewhat frantic email outlining my problem and the urgency of its resolution, since I needed to correct my copy before exposing myself to ridicule and worse. (On the other hand, I might find out if people actually read book reviews. But maybe that's something I'm better off not knowing.)

I got a quick reply from Joel Ward of the Historical Society, who wrote: "To the best of my knowledge, popcorn was not invented here, but Olmstead Ferris is claimed as the man who introduced it to Europe. There's even a children's story book about it"-and he provided this Internet link:

At this site there's a 1997 Kirkus Review of Popcorn at the Palace, by Emily Arnold McCully, which tells the story of Olmstead Ferris and his daughter traveling to London with Europe's first supply of popcorn, and popping some for Queen Victoria. She liked it.

So for my more urgent and narrow purpose, I had an even better story---that Galesburg first supplied Europe with popcorn, thus contributing to the French New Wave movie experience in France. I accept this popcorn story with a grain of salt, because---well, that's how I like my popcorn. Although Joel Ward suggested a couple of other people to talk to, I thought his statement plus the children's book was sufficient evidence for a much more modest claim, so for a parenthetical reference in a book review, I went with it. I sent my editor the correction, and the explanation for same, and with noticeable tact he simply accepted it. The review has not yet been published, and I fully expect this line to be cut in editing anyway, but I did my duty.

About the Internet I learned one has to employ the same standards for evaluating information as in any other research, because the Internet is simply not going to do the work for you, especially when it involves judgment. One cannot count on the Internet to (yet) carry all the information you might require: there are lots of un-digitized books that presumably tell the history of popcorn, and the history of Olmstead Ferris, as well as where they might intersect, in greater detail, perhaps even with attributions. One also cannot count on Google or any other single search engine to turn up everything that is on the Internet. (The reference to this children's book didn't turn up on my searches, though when I varied the terms a little on a later search, it did.) And on the Internet as in other kinds of research, persistence and creativity count.

And finally, that even after exhausting every reference on the Internet, you may still not know the answer. Either it isn't there, or you need some other reference you can trust to help you know what to believe. For instance, a person with credentials and credibility, who will answer your questions.

By the way, Olmstead Ferris was George Ferris's uncle. Somehow popcorn and the Ferris Wheel do belong in the same family.

Of course, there is a site that says that George's uncle---the one who introduced popcorn to Europe---was named Nate.

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