Native Americans believed the sound of popping corn was made by angry spirits escaping their overheated homes. Science offers a more plausible, if less colorful explanation: Corn has a densely starchy filling and a tough, moisture-sealed hull. When sufficiently heated, interior moisture builds to a pressurized steam, at which point the kernel explodes. Several strains of corn will pop under the right conditions, but what we buy has been specifically bred for the task.

Popcorn found in New Mexico dates to 3600 B.C., and European settlers readily adopted this treat -- the first "puffed cereal" was popcorn doused with milk, eaten for breakfast by colonists.

Consumption reached a zenith during the Great Depression. At a nickel a bag, popcorn became popular in movie theaters, an important diversion for the beleaguered masses. Struggling farmers turned their fields over to popcorn, and today, at least six Midwestern towns claim honors as the popcorn capital of the world.

Theater popcorn has been vilified as "having more fat than a Big Mac and fries." But pure popcorn is good food. As a whole grain, it's naturally high in fiber, with only 30 calories per popped cup. Avoid the additives and expense of microwave popcorn by making your own. Put 1/4 cup popcorn in a brown paper lunch bag, making several narrow folds at the top to seal. Microwave for 2 minutes on high.

> Cashew Butter Crunch Popcorn

14 cups freshly popped popcorn (made from about 1/2 cup popcorn kernels and 2 tablespoons canola oil)

1 1/2 cups salted roasted cashews

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus additional for greasing

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly butter a large baking sheet; spread popcorn and cashews on sheet. Keep warm in oven.

Mix butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a small saucepan; stir frequently until simmering and sugar dissolves. Clip a candy thermometer to the inside of the pan and continue cooking undisturbed until temperature reaches 248 degrees (firm-ball stage).

Remove from heat and stir in baking soda. The mixture will roil vigorously; continue stirring until smooth.

Drizzle sugar mixture evenly over popcorn and cashews; toss well with flat metal spatula or spoon.

Bake 45 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes. Cool on baking sheet, then store in a covered container at room temperature up to 3 days. Makes about 15 cups.

Recipe by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Per (1-cup) serving: 230 calories, 13g fat, 15mg chol., 3g prot., 28g carbs., 2g fiber, 190mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.