|Connected Cravings: Popcorn at the Movies|
Ever wonder how peanut butter and jelly came to be? Or why we eat fruitcake on Christmas? Here in America, we’re so obsessed with food that we’ll associate it with anything, from an event or an activity to another food. If you’ve ever pondered why we eat certain foods in certain settings or contexts, or why we eat one food with another, the mystery is over. Each week in Connected Cravings, we’ll pick an everyday event or activity that’s synonymous with a particular food and delve into the intricacies of how the pairing came to be.
It’s that heady, salty smell that hits you right when you walk in. That oily substance that coats everything you touch. That incessant crunch punctuating the silent theater. It’s as essential to movie going as the film itself. We’re talking about popcorn, of course.
Believe it or not, there was a time when theater owners refused to sell popcorn, believing it was too messy. There’s a good chance they’re right, if the number of kernels lodged in the soles of patrons’ shoes is any indication. If that’s the case, though, how did this messy, noisy snack become so ubiquitous in theaters across the country?
In the early part of the twentieth century, popcorn was typically sold by street vendors. Because movie theaters drew steady crowds, popcorn vendors would often station themselves outside to sell popcorn to people on their way in. Theater owners, however, became frustrated with people leaving in the middle of the movie to buy popcorn, and many installed their own electric popcorn machines (an invention perfected by Charles Manley in 1925). Those who installed popcorn machines quickly saw their profits skyrocket, and many of those who didn’t went out of business. The late Samuel Rubin, better known as “Sam the Popcorn Man,” is remembered as the first theater owner to begin selling popcorn.
Throughout the Great Depression, popcorn sales actually increased due to the presence of the snack in movie theaters. Movies were the only form of entertainment that most families could afford, and a bag of popcorn cost only a nickel, making it a cheap treat that appealed to both children and adults. Some theater owners even lowered the price of tickets and saw their profit margins increase based on popcorn sales.
This trend would continue throughout the first half of the century. By the 1950’s, theater owners were making more money off popcorn than off the movies themselves. Today, less than half of movie theater profits come from films, with snack sales accounting for the bulk of the money. Because theater owners get to keep 100% of the profits made from popcorn and other treats (they must split the money made from ticket sales with filmmakers), the relationship between popcorn and movies appears to be a match made in butter-scented heaven.
Also check out last week's edition of Connected Cravings.
About the Author:
I'm a contributing editor for EATS- check out my column "Connected Cravings" under "Foodie News"!