Corn Nuts are some of the most polarizing products around. Besides the potentially confusing name (“Is it corn, or is it nuts?”), they’re divisive in nearly every respect.
They’re so crunchy they can legitimately endanger your tooth enamel, they’re not the most attractive nosh (there’s a reason they’re a natural choice for zombie teeth in edible Halloween crafts), and they have an infamously overpowering smell.
On the other hand, their signature crunch and various fun flavors have earned them a passionate cult following. Personally, I’ve learned to like them, but many people love them.
Regardless of whether you occasionally crave or completely shun them, Corn Nuts have a long and fascinating history. Curious about the backstory behind these strange little nuggets of snacking? We’ve got the details.
Before we go any further, let’s answer the age-old question: Corn Nuts are, in fact, corn, and not nuts.
Their earliest ancestor was parched corn, a Native American preparation of dried and roasted corn kernels that was both nutritionally dense and light to carry.
In fact, many countries have Corn Nuts analogues, since corn is native to the Americas. It was first cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago, and indigenous people throughout North, Central, and South America have eaten it in fresh and preserved forms for millennia.
In Peru, for instance, it’s called cancha salada. In Ecuador and other parts of South America, they call it maiz tostado. There are other versions, too. Even on the opposite side of the globe, in the Philippines, people enjoy cornick, pieces of which are usually smaller and crisper than Corn Nuts, but basically the same idea.
Back in North America, parched corn was adopted by early European colonists and settlers and was commonly packed in wagons for the journey along the Oregon Trail — making it the original road trip snack.
During the Civil War, parched corn was a staple for soldiers. It could be ground into a substance called panola, which was eaten dry, possibly seasoned with salt or sugar.
Parched corn is also mentioned in the third book in the Little House on the Prairie series, On the Banks of Plum Creek, which states: “Parched corn was good. It crackled and crunched, and its taste was sweet and brown.”
Although the book was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood during the 1870s, it wasn’t published until 1937 — but parched corn was not a thing of the past even then.
As time marched on, crunchy, dried corn continued to be a low-cost staple.
The Final Frontiers, 1880-1930: Settling the Southern Bottomlands describes how, during the Dust Bowl, “desperate [share] croppers were reduced to stealing corn from farmers’ cribs. Taking a few ears of corn at a time, they parched corn kernels in skillets with a little lard and salt.”
And in The Family, a book of oral histories from former residents of a North Carolina orphanage, one contributor recalled hearing a couple of friends “speaking about the hard times during the Great Depression and the eating of ‘parched corn,’ which is how the corn was continued to be food after it had ripened and hardened.”
So how did this hardscrabble sustenance food — children’s book author’s endorsement notwithstanding — morph into a casual snack many still enjoy today?
In 1936, Oakland, CA native Albert Holloway decided to sell his own version of parched corn — the kernels re-hydrated and then fried — to local bars and taverns, since the salty, crunchy morsels paired so well with beer.
He marketed his creation as Olin’s Brown Jug Toasted Corn, which grew into a successful family business. At some point, the name was changed to the much catchier Corn Nuts, presumably because the corn’s crunch was on par with (or even surpassed) that of peanuts. The name was officially trademarked in 1949.
While Holloway initially used domestic corn, an article mentioning Peru’s giant white Cusco (or Cuzco) maize prompted him to procure a shipment of it. Known as choclo in Peru, it has larger-than-average kernels and is starchier and nuttier than sweet corn.
Holloway worked with engineers to cross-breed the oversized Peruvian corn with a domestic variety, and after a decade of experiments, their new hybrid was perfected.
It hit the shelves in 1964, by which time, Albert’s sons Maurice and Richard — who jointly took over the business in 1959 — had expanded Corn Nuts from a local product to a nationally distributed brand.
Over the years, Corn Nuts have had their 15 minutes of fame in the realm of pop culture.
In the early 1980s, there was buzz about the fact that Atari’s Pac-Man looked nearly identical to the Corn Nuts logo that had been trademarked in 1965 (but hasn’t been used for many years).
At the time, Maurice Holloway told InfoWorld magazine: “We applaud Pac Man’s incredible success, but we don’t want him to eat away at our profits.” The controversy quickly died out from there.
Then, in 1989, the movie Heathers gave the snack a perhaps unwelcome shout-out as character Heather Chandler’s last words before dying. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but one that has spawned memorable gifs to this day.
Nabisco (which is now part of Kraft Foods) purchased the family-owned company in late 1997. According to a New York Times blurb, Nabisco “said the strong Cornnuts presence in convenience stores would add to its sales” in that arena.
In fact, in the early 2000s, Nabisco poured a lot of money into advertising Corn Nuts nationwide.
You may recall these “extreme” ads with the not-exactly-appetizing (but some would say entirely accurate) slogan, “Corn Gone Wrong.” (You can still find vintage prints featuring bad boy corn characters like evil clowns and jailbirds.)
Today, in the world of marketing everything online, Corn Nuts’ social media presence is pretty minimal. There are verified Corn Nuts accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, but it seems Corn Nuts relies more on its societally ingrained popularity than social media marketing.
All of this only serves to solidify a general impression of Corn Nuts as a one-off snack sort of frozen in time, only ever grabbed from gas stations, where they may have been resting on the wire rack for decades.
Then again, you can buy “artisanal” versions of Corn Nuts from fancy food purveyors. Often called “Inca corn” or simply “toasted corn,” it’s typically found in the bulk bin section, sometimes seasoned with salt and pepper.
Of course, you could also try your hand at homemade corn nuts with any seasoning you desire — just remember to keep your face and hands well away from the pot, as the corn can explode.
America’s own brand of desiccated crunchy corn chow has evolved from ancient subsistence food to bar stool nibble to casual car snack. It’s hard to imagine Corn Nuts ever disappearing completely, cemented as they are in the fabric of our lives.
When you do remember them, they’ll be there. Even in decades to come, we predict people will still grab those shiny little bags from some future equivalent of gas stations, filling their hover cars with that familiar sweet stench en route to the mighty canyons of Mars.
Because Corn Nuts have always existed in some form, and likely always will.