The Best Ears of His Life
Wednesday, October 6, 1999, Phillips, Nebraska
Originally published at: http://markstrail.com/usa/popcorn/popcorn.htm
B.K. Heuermann produces the most popular do-it-yourself snack food in this country – a food that is as American as apple pie. He didn’t plan on his life taking this direction, but when he prepared to retire from his career designing feed corn for cattle, he started a little hobby.
“See, the ears of corn are different, just like people are different.”
Heuermann had graduated from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1956 and worked for Prairie Valley Hybrid. As his retirement approached in 1982, he set aside a few acres on his own farm to breed a hybrid popcorn. “I think a guy’s gotta do something,” he says. “This gives me something to do every day.” He had hoped to have a small field of corn to while away his sunset years, but two things made that hobby a full-time job; the microwave oven and cable television.
Breeding popcorn is similar to breeding flowers, or hamsters, even. A corn stalk has a male and a female part – the tassels on top of the stalk comprise the male, and the “silk” threads around the kernels, the female part. The idea, as any teenager learns with zeal, is to introduce the tassels to the silk.
Every ear of corn ever grown on this planet has had an even number of rows of kernels.
Heuermann spent nine seasons refining his “Exclusive” hybrid of microwavable popcorn. Each season, he discarded hundreds of ears and kept the best ones. If he liked the way an ear looked, he mixed its tassel with its own silk, or “inbred” it. If he liked part of an ear, but thought the qualities of another one would help it, he mixed their tassels and silk, or “crossbred” them. He then used a paper bag to cover the ear and the female silk, to keep the guys (pollen from tassels) away.
There are two types of popped corn. The most common is what Heuermann calls the “butterfly flake” with sections that nearly resemble wings, or mouse ears, perhaps. These are great for holding salt, butter and other flavorings, but they break off when making caramel or cheese popcorn snacks. So Heuermann is developing a consistent hybrid of what he calls “mushroom” popcorn, which pops into a ball, or mushroom shape.
Heuermann grows thousands of hybrid plants in a field on the west side of his home. At each harvest, he and his staff gather the ears, and carefully label and bag them. Then he studies the qualities of each ear, such as; taste and texture of the popped corn, yield (number of kernels on each ear and how many pop) resistance to bugs and weather, and the hull.
The hull on B.K. Heuermann’s Exclusive Popcorn is very thin and it virtually disappears when popped, he claims, which is how popcorn should be. It took him a decade to develop this corn, and he has patented the hybrid. “There aren’t many people in the business that do what we do,” Heuermann says. “Many just buy someone else’s popcorn and put their name on the bag.”
Corn is corn? Here are several varieties: white popcorn, eating corn, popcorn, mushroom popcorn and two inbred popcorns.
A handy feature of his product is the bag he uses. Most popcorn bags, with their gable bottoms, won’t stand up worth a darn, but Heuermann found a bag with a square bottom, and it sits nicely on a table, or on the couch next to you.
The bag holds everything, but the kernel is king. The kernel is precious now, because of the microwave oven. Once sold by the pound at commodity prices, the kernel is now part of a recipe. 400-500 are placed in a bag with oil, salt and flavorings, and are sold at a premium price. (One acre of farm land will produce enough popcorn for 25,000 bags.) When kernels are bruised, the hulls leak air and they won’t pop, turning into “old maids.” So, to protect the kernel, Heuermann grows corn on his own properties, and has modified his harvesting equipment to treat the ears gently.
Popcorn is a very American food, with over 1 billion pounds popped each year here, according to Heuermann. He says the tradition began in the midwest, with American Indians. “They found popcorn in caves that is 5,000 years old,” he says. No doubt, the first person to pop a kernel of corn was a bit surprised, but no more surprised than Heuermann was when he put his product in microwave ovens and watched his sales explode.
In 1997, the QVC Channel held a state-by-state search for new products. When the “Quest for America” came to Nebraska, Heuermann competed with 280 manufacturers, and the mild-mannered retiree walked away with his microwave popcorn chosen as one of 20 “best new products.” He flew to Westchester, Pennsylvania to pitch his hobby on television, and to his amazement, he sold 1,800 cases in less than four minutes. He has since joined QVC 32 times, selling cases of natural, butter and low fat popcorn for about $15 each. “I never expected all this,” he says. “I just wanted to make a better popcorn.”
Heuerman and Norma, his wife of 37 years, have two boys, two girls, and nine grandchildren. There doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm from the descendants to inherit the popcorn empire, but Heuermann doesn’t seem to mind, as it is still a hobby, of sorts, and he is still researching, looking for a better popping corn.
To you and me, it is just a better bag of popcorn, but to Heuermann, who says; “There never is a perfect popcorn,” this is a quest for a better kernel, a higher yielding ear and a more hardy field of corn. Best of all, after a career of designing corn for someone else, this quest is his, and being able to mount it so successfully is a dream come true. “I never get tired of it,” he says. Since his little hobby has turned into a thriving business of designing, producing and selling America’s favorite home-made snack food, B.K. Heuermann has been having the best years of his life.
A corn kernel is a capsule with an airtight shell, called a hull, that holds corn and moisture. When the kernel is heated, the moist air turns to steam and expands until it pops the hull, like a balloon. Here’s how to make that happen perfectly:
Power Up – A microwave oven rated at less than 800 watts may take too long to pop all the kernels, burning the ones which popped first.
Don’t Stop – When steam brews in the kernels, pressure can build to 125 psi, stretching and weakening the hulls. If you interrupt the heat, the hulls let air escape, and those kernels will never pop. So, if you’re not sure how long to set your microwave, set it for five minutes, and turn it off when popping slows to a kernel every few seconds.
Keep Cool – Traditional popcorn will stay fresh for months, even years, but microwave popcorn is packaged with oil and butter, which softens and weakens the hulls. Heuermann would certainly keep his microwave popcorn in the fridge – in the freezer, even – if he didn’t have his own constant, fresh supply right next to his farm house.