The way the aborigines figured it, there was this little demon who lived in a kernal of corn, and when you set fire to his house he got so mad he burst.

Aborigines are so melodramatic. We call it popcorn.

We love it.

We can't keep our hands out of the box.

Especially at the movies. . .

Last year we ate 568,000,000 pounds of it. We spread caramel goop on it. We dip it in chocolate. We serve it with marshmallows, cherries, granola, and put it in soup for croutons. We mix it with chili. We sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese and spices and some powder that tastes like sour cream. We pour hot root beer over it.

Come on. Hot root beer, that's disgusting.

It is not. The Popcorn Institute gives the recipe, and therefore it's true. Furthermore, the Pilgrims ate it for breakfast in their early American cereal bowls with sugar and cream. Not so long ago we strung it up on our Christmas trees.

That's nothing. The Arawak Indians used it for corsages.

But you really can't say you have done popcorn until you have had it in a movie theater.

Last year we bought $700 million worth of popcorn, and $264 million of it came from movie theaters. For years most of us preferred to pop it at the movies, and in fact popcorn is still only 6 percent of America's total snack market, which provides one out of every five calories shipped aboard the average American. But it is coming back. In the last four years it has been booming. Popcorn is hot.

Today we are attacking it like gypsy moths at the rate of 9 billion quarts, or 40 quarts a year for every man, woman, child and infant in the United States. My God, that's almost half a cup a day.

Half a cup? Nobody ever ate half a cup of popcorn. You don't eat it out of a cup anyway.

I'm sorry, that's what the Institute says. It's very good for the teeth, too. The American Dental Association endorses it. Also great for the colon.

You begin to understand how big popcorn is when you see the size of the buckets they sell it in at the movies. Also when you can't get up from your seat because your shoes are sliding in melted butter. Some theater people will tell you straight out that popcorn is the only thing between them and the poorhouse: It's literally their profit margin.

That's why they leave the house lights on clear through the previews.

Well why do you think they make all these long movies with the intermissions?

"People just can't make it taste the same at home," observed Vernon Ryles, president of the National Association of Concessionaires. "For years, the commercially popped product was poor. It lay around on the shelf and absorbed moisture and got tough. But that's all changed now."

He would say that.

Listens, Ryles' own Popper Supply Co. of Portland, Ore., is a leader in the Popcorn Technical Revolution.

I knew it.

Shut up. The basic answer is a poly-laminated foil package, 21 by 40 inches, holding five pounds of popcorn plus a shot of machine-dried air.

Machine-dried air. Ri-i-i-ght.

So? So they dry air by machine now. We're all learning something.

"You know, popcorn is extremely hydroscopic," said Ryles. "It draws moisture. And the salt draws it too. You need a barrier to keep out moisture and sunlight, which oxidizes the oils."

His popcorn keeps as long as nine months, he reported. He sends it to Japan by boat. It is a big hit in Japan, where no one knows the first thing about popping popcorn.

The pros don't just shake it over the stove, either. They bake it in hot air -- more efficient than oil -- in 15-foot-long chambers seven feet high, that handle 650 pounds an hour at 400 degrees. When they do use oil, it is coconut oil, which has a safely high flashpoint of 500 degrees and leaves no taste of its own. Then the popped kernels pass on to the sifting chamber, then the coating unit. They are salted in the process. Even the salt is special. It is powder-fine, melts right into the corn as the moisture is removed.

Sometimes the salt is butter-flavored, which is why, since the Revolution, it is possible to take your popcorn neat. But most people still like at the illusion of actual melted butter on their corn.

Yeah. And their fingers. And chins. And down their shirts.

Yes, yes. Now, some outfits use real butter or dehydrated butterfat. But one big reason for the resurgence of popcorn in the last few years is that it is low on calories: 25 to 55 per cup, 40 to 65 lightly buttered. That's less than two chocolate chip cookies. So, in the spirit of chic -- popcorn is endorsed by Weight Watchers, you know -- many producers use cholesterol-free vegetable oils like cottonseed or soy.

Which are also cheaper.

Sure, but these guys are all heart. They even tell you it's not butter. They call it Golden Spray. Not the most attractive name in the world, but oh well. Anyway, commercially popped popcorn is so popular (sorry) that people actually go into movie theaters to buy it even when they aren't planning to see the movie. Some theaters pop their own, but many buy it in bulk. A good-sized theater or multiple will use 250 pounds a week, plus 100 pounds of oil.

"Of course," said Charles Winans of the NAC, "it depends on the time of year -- fall is the peak season -- and the movie itself. For 'Lawrence of Arabia,' with all that sand, they went for the soft drinks and wouldn't touch popcorn. But 'Jaws' was another story."

Popcorn grew up with the movies. Popcorn wagons began appearing at county fairs and circuses at the turn of the century, and the first electric poppers showed up around 1925, just before sound came in. Before that, it was strictly a home treat. Farmers would always sow a row of popcorn at the edge of their cornfields.

There was something festve about it: the ruddy smiling faces around the hearth, the jolly little explosions, the crisp white cloudlets gleaming with butter. . . They say the warming pan was invented when someone took a second look at an 18th-century popcorn popper. It goes back further, much further. Quadequina, the brother of Massasoit, brought a deerskin bagful of popcorn to the first Thanksgiving dinner and put some into everyone's little nut cups. Pre-Columbian popcorn has been carbondated at 5,600 years old. The Aztecs carved statues of their gods with popcorn necklaces. Popcorn was the original corn, some say, ur-corn. What do you think the old Indian standby "parched corn" was?

I'm tired of facts.

Facts! We've barely started. Did you know that when Cynthia Gomez of Los Angeles got a piece of popcorn stuck in her left ear (she was 4 at the time) it cost $421 to pry it out? Did you know that stewardesses have almost missed their own flights out of Cox Airport at Dayton, Ohio, because they were busy buying the great popcorn at Wileswood Country Store in the terminal? Did you know that it is not a tiny demon but steam from trapped moisture that blows up the kernel?. . .

Hey, somebody stop this.

I'll give you facts. Popcorn loses its pop when it loses moisture, so keep it in an airtight container. Orville Redenbacher made a fortune with his glass popcorn jars. His TV ads have been a large factor in the Popcorn Renaissance. The best way to pop it is: heavy skillet, light oil base, single layer of kernels. And shake it, so the kernels can work up a full head of steam before they go off. The Popcorn Institute represents 90 percent of the producers. They contract with farmers to grow their specially developed hybrids with just the right amount of kernel moisture, as low as 13.5 percent. They look for a 34-to-1 expansion, minimum, allowing 2 percent duds. . .

Help! My head is popping!

. . . On the other hand, some Indians found that if you didn't pop the stuff but fermented it, you could get this terrific malt beverage. . .