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Chicago’s love affair with popcorn goes back 150 years, from Cracker Jack to Garrett Mix

5 Photos
John Spiropoulos doesn't let a coal strike bother his peanut and popcorn business as he uses gasoline for light and heat at North Avenue and Clark Street on Nov. 25, 1946, in Chicago.
John Spiropoulos doesn't let a coal strike bother his peanut and popcorn business as he uses gasoline for light and heat at North Avenue and Clark Street on Nov. 25, 1946, in Chicago. (Howard Borvig/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO — “Are the Chicago people fond of popcorn?” asked a Tribune reporter in an article from Dec. 2, 1883.

A food vendor replied emphatically: “Fond of it? Well, I should rather say so. Who can help but be fond of fresh corn nicely popped, sugared, salted, or buttered to suit the taste? Yes sir, they are decidedly.”

Since at least the 1870s, Chicago has been a hotbed of popcorn innovation. Part of that has to do with Chicago’s role as a transportation hub for grain in the Midwest. But the entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens certainly helped.

Not everyone at the Tribune was thrilled about the explosion in the popcorn business. On April 5, 1874, the paper noted that commercial popcorn makers have seen “business rapidly attaining gigantic proportions.” But the unnamed reporter lamented that the “romance of pop-corn has departed; it is all a matter of business now.” Instead, he apparently preferred it when it was “once manufactured by every Eastern fireside, when winter came to sadden the year.”

While some businessmen did sell popcorn in bags, one of the most popular options was “solidified pop-corn,” which was shaped into either a ball or a brick. On July 8, 1883, an unnamed reporter wrote in remarkable detail about visiting two Chicago popcorn factories to better understand the process.

If readers had never encountered the snack before, he had it covered with details of the “beautiful metamorphosis” as corn “transformed into something which resembles nothing so much as a white blossom …”

He also wrote that after the sugar had been added, one place added a dye made of cochineal, a dried red insect, to give the popcorn a “carmine tint.” The reporter wondered if the dye was harmful. “No,” said the proprietor, “it is quite harmless; and then, you see, it gives the pop-corn a sort of Fourth-of-July look.”

The 1883 article also quoted one of the popcorn factory owners as saying popcorn balls were going out of fashion. That turned out to be wildly premature. A decade later, in 1896, the Tribune wrote about a popcorn vendor in Lincoln Park who served “old-fashioned balls of white kernels sprinkled with clean sugar.” Though the reporter claimed “his figure is as familiar to the people of the North Side as the Grant statue,” he also didn’t bother to find out the vendor’s real name. “Nobody knows his name, but the fat policeman who has been on the same corner for nearly a dozen years says everybody calls him ‘Popcorn John.’”

Recipes for popcorn balls continued to be printed well into the 20th century. A bare-bones recipe appears in the paper Nov. 6, 1915. On July 6, 1930, a reader with the initials C.G.P. wrote in that she had made some money by selling popcorn balls around the neighborhood. “The venture proved a success … and I could have sold double the amount prepared daily.” A recipe for cinnamon popcorn balls shows up on Jan. 4, 1935, while an Oct. 28, 1966, recipe proves popcorn balls were still fairly popular eight decades after the ill-fated prediction of their demise.

Another innovation in the popcorn arts was also taking place during the end of the 19th century. On March 8, 1896, the Tribune reported that “Louis Rueckheim, a Chicago candy manufacturer, recently hit upon a very bright, new idea in confections.”

The Tribune couldn’t hide its enthusiasm, declaring in uppercase letters in the headline, “DO NOT TASTE IT. IF YOU DO YOU WILL PART WITH YOUR MONEY EASY.” The product the German-born immigrant created? Cracker Jack.

Chicagoans apparently couldn’t get enough. The Tribune quotes a “jobber” who said it was almost too easy to sell: “Cracker Jack reminds me of fishing. Offering Cracker Jack for sale is like baiting a hook. When the fish bite they’re caught. When people bite Cracker Jack they, too, are caught.”

In 1908, Cracker Jack was mentioned in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, ensuring millions would associate the snack with the national pastime.

Of course, not everyone in Chicago enjoyed so many people hawking popcorn. On Aug. 9, 1925, a disgruntled reader wrote, “A fellow has been operating a popcorn stand near me and it detracts from the appearance of the neighborhood … none of us like it.”

Though Garrett Popcorn Shops would eventually gain citywide popcorn prominence, the store’s first mention in the Tribune had nothing to do with its food. On Oct. 27, 1953, an article explained how a man held up the company’s first location at 10 W. Madison St. for $147.

But as the man ran out of the store, co-owner Claude Garrett gave chase, and “an unidentified sailor overtook the robber and grappled with him.” Though “the robber wriggled out of his coat and ducked into the subway at State and Monroe,” the money from the register was in the coat and was returned.

Mentions of Garrett Popcorn were scarce for the next few decades, but there were other big popcorn developments in between. On Oct. 13, 1972, George Lazarus reported on an exciting new popcorn brand in Valparaiso, Indiana. Orville Redenbacher had been selling popcorn for years, along with various other things like fertilizer and snowmobiles, until a Chicago marketing firm convinced him to change the company from RedBow to his own name. Lazarus sounded skeptical in the article, noting there was “disbelief in both the cost and name of such a product.”

Of course, by Nov. 23, 1988, Orville Redenbacher was doing so well he was called the “corn king.” But even he didn’t think the name would work as well as it did. He told Mike Ebert he paid the Chicago firm “$15,000 to come up with a name for the corn,” and it was “the same name my mother thought of 81 years ago.”

Throughout the 20th century, the Tribune published a number of articles exploring why popcorn was so popular at movie theaters. In a snarky article Oct. 21, 1957, a writer loudly lamented the practice. “Popcorn didn’t really get big until people with teeth discovered that if you took it into a motion picture theater, and ate it loudly enough, you could not hear the actors.”

That writer was obviously in the minority, as popcorn and the movies continued their productive partnership. On Dec. 12, 1986, now-former Tribune dining critic Phil Vettel eloquently described why the two worked so well together: “(Popcorn) also may be the perfect movie food. It’s cheap, easy to share and simple to find in the dark. People who can’t get through an ordinary meal without spilling gravy on their ties still easily manage to stare attentively at a movie screen, share a jumbo popcorn to the very last kernel and never once look down.”

Even Gene Siskel, the Tribune’s nationally acclaimed movie critic at the time, was a “longtime popcorn enthusiast.” On Dec. 12, 1986, he created a comprehensive guide to eating popcorn at the movies.

He did not mince words: “The key concept of popcorn is that you can make better popcorn at home than they can make at the theater.” He even suggested smuggling some in. “In wintertime, that should not be a problem. I’ve used my briefcase in the summertime.” If you forgot to make some at home, he also had helpful advice for scoring the freshest movie popcorn. “I try to get there as it’s popping out and say, ‘Could you just hold the box under the popper?’ So you get the real hot stuff.”

But Siskel also declared that if you have the money, you should really stop at Garrett Popcorn Shops before going in: “My recommendation — and it will sound disgusting to you, as it did to me when I first saw someone order it; but don’t let that put you off — is to order a half-and-half mixture of caramel and cheese … You get a sweet-and-sour effect that’s fabulous.” This appears to be the first mention of this fateful combo in the paper, though deciding on what to call it took much longer.

Mentions of Garrett Popcorn Shops balloon in the 1990s, and by 1997 the store is mentioned as a must-visit attraction for tourists. In an impressively long feature about the Magnificent Mile, reporter Victoria S. Lautman marvels at the line outside Garretts’ Michigan Avenue location.

“Even in subzero, dead-of-winter temperatures there can be double lines and waits of 45 minutes outside the tiny, 1,000-square-foot store.” She also notes that the most popular order is the “so-called downtown mix.” This name didn’t last long.

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In the same article, the vice president of Garrett at the time, Karen Galaba, explained the history of mixing the flavors. “We started getting requests 10 years ago for a combination of our CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn mixed together. There’s apparently something about the sweet and salty combination that’s really satisfying to the palate.”

The Tribune also found some time to write about other popcorn vendors, including one very small one. On July 4, 2000, David Sharos wrote about The Popcorn Shop, a 5-foot-wide popcorn store in suburban Wheaton. Owner Bill Wakefield said he’d gone through two tons of popcorn the year before. His secret? “It’s not what we do to the popcorn, it’s what we don’t do … We use white corn, which is sweeter and smaller and less tough than yellow corn.” Now called The Little Popcorn Store, the tiny operation just celebrated its 102nd anniversary.

But the majority of the Tribune’s popcorn coverage centered on Garrett Popcorn. On Jan. 29, 2003, Eric Paul Erickson referred to the company as a “cherished institution.” Michael Roach quotes a couple of tourists from Iowa saying Garrett Popcorn was an essential stop in Chicago: “This and Marshall Field’s … It just wouldn’t be a visit to Chicago if you didn’t stop at Fields and pick up some caramel corn.”

That didn’t mean that Garrett Popcorn figured out the right name for the combination of caramel and cheese popcorn. Though it had once been called the “downtown mix,” on Oct. 15, 2009, reporter Denise Joyce referred to the combination as the “Chicago Mix.”

But that also didn’t last long. On Sept. 2, 2014, a story explained how Candyland Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota, had copyrighted “Chicago Mix” back in 1992. Faced with a lawsuit, a spokesman for Garrett Popcorn said the company was “transitioning away from calling its world-famous CheeseCorn and CaramelCrisp flavor ‘Chicago Mix’ to the more ownable ‘Garrett Mix.’”

The rest, as they say, was history.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.