This weekend, cookbook author Molly Yeh went viral on Twitter with a clip of the “popcorn salad” from her Food Network show Girl Meets Farm. The “salad,” a term used loosely, immediately horrified people on social media, as Yeh’s version is a mixture of white Cheddar popcorn and vinegary, mayo-based dressing that’s finished with watercress and celery leaves.
Midwesterns seeking to distance themselves from Yeh’s description of the salad as “Midwestern cuisine” disavowed the dish in the comments as something they’d never seen. Other critics implied that the recipe was created simply for the memes, since it’s true that disgust-inducing food gets clicks. Where did popcorn salad come from—and more importantly, why?
Popcorn salad appears to be more than a social media stunt or a recent, brand-concocted phenomenon. In response to Yeh’s video, the author Lauren Hough tweeted about having once seen popcorn salad in the wild in a church basement in Happy, Texas decades ago. But that may have grown out of a bigger trend: As culinary historian Sylvia Lovegren referenced in the 2005 book Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, American housewives made banana and popcorn salad back in the 1920s. Their iteration involved cutting a banana in half, placing it on a lettuce leaf, and dotting it with popcorn and globs of mayo. (In the 1930s, the combination of popcorn and milk featured in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy.)
In response to Yeh’s video, BroBible suggested a joking theory: that the concept of popcorn salad may simply be “propaganda from Big Popcorn,” as The Popcorn Board—a research and promotion program funded by U.S. popcorn processors—has published its own recipe for the dish. Indeed, The Popcorn Board’s recipe was circulated in Minnesota Monthly in 2015. A representative of The Popcorn Board said that the group adapted the recipe a few years ago, but didn’t have any more information about the dish’s origins. WestBend—a company that sells electric appliances including popcorn makers—also published a popcorn salad recipe in 2019. Popcorn promotion doesn’t seem to be the whole picture, though.
Yeh’s dish indeed has roots in the mayo salad culture of the Midwest. A community cookbook that was compiled by members of the Mercer County Historical Society in Beulah, North Dakota and published in 1994, listed popcorn salad among dishes like potato salad, pistachio salad, and macaroni fruit salad. In more recent years, many recipes for popcorn salad that resemble Yeh’s have been shared online.
The Iowa-based Sioux City Journal published a popcorn salad recipe attributed to a home cook in Nebraska in 2007. A popcorn salad recipe from 2012, which features bacon and cheddar cheese, is the most popular post from the food blog You Eat Like That Every Day? A Michigan news segment described popcorn salad as “great for graduation parties” in 2015; the dish was promoted by the Indiana-based Goshen News in 2018. And in 2019, the YouTube channel Recipe Archaeology, which rediscovers “old fashioned, retro, bizarre and sometimes gross recipes,” recreated a popcorn salad recipe from a 1992 cookbook of favorite recipes from residents of a retirement community in Raymore, Missouri.
Of course, popcorn and salad can be combined in a slightly more palatable way by treating popcorn as one might use croutons. But despite the current wave of backlash, mayo-based popcorn salad like Yeh’s seems to have honest-to-god enthusiasts. Comments from between 2002 and 2008 on an AllRecipes version of popcorn salad are overwhelmingly positive, and according to one person, who commented in 2006, the grocery store where they worked even sold popcorn salad in its deli. The consensus seems to be that popcorn salad is something one has to try in order to understand. As another commenter wrote: “Very skeptical at first but was totally surprised!” We’ll leave it to you to try it.