Some snacks are fairly universally beloved, like trail mix and cheese crackers. Even beef jerky has more fans than not. Then there are the less popular nibbles, like Combos, which inspire fervent devotion in some and equally passionate revulsion in others. Perhaps chief among these polarizing products are Corn Nuts. 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 enamel; they are not the most attractive nosh (there’s a reason they’re a natural choice for zombie teeth in edible Halloween crafts, though this application is severely underrepresented online); and they have an infamously overpowering smell, especially when you open a bag in an enclosed car, which is where I most often encounter them, as a road trip snack. I’ve learned to like them, mostly, but many love them. Regardless of whether you occasionally crave or completely shun them, Corn Nuts have a long and fascinating history.
First of all, you only need to look at them to know that they are, in fact, corn, and not nuts.
Also, they’re technically CornNuts (one awkward word, which we shall use hereafter). 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. As with pemmican, parched corn was adopted by early European colonists and settlers. It was commonly packed in wagons for the journey along the Oregon Trail, so really, it was the original road trip snack, although they often used it to make soup instead of eating it as-is. During the Civil War (1861-1865), parched corn was a staple for soldiers; it could be ground into a substance called panola, which might have been seasoned with salt or sugar but was eaten dry. Whether that sounds better or worse than CornNuts is a matter of personal opinion…
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 actual experiences during the 1870s, it wasn’t published until 1937—but parched corn was not a thing of the past even then.
“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 collecting 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, Calif. 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, if slightly muddled, CornNuts, presumably because the corn’s crunch was on par with (and far 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 our sweet corn. Holloway worked with engineers to crossbreed 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 CornNuts from a local product to a nationally distributed brand.
In the early 1980s, there was a little noise about the fact that Atari’s Pac-Man looked nearly identical to the CornNuts logo that had been trademarked in 1965 (but hasn’t been used for many years). Maurice Holloway told InfoWorld magazine at the time: “We applaud Pac Man’s incredible success, but we don’t want him to eat away at our profits.” They didn’t mind if Pac-Man stayed in his lane(s) and refrained from trying to take a bite out of the snack world (although a short-lived Pac-Man cereal did debut in 1983), so it didn’t make many other headlines. In 1989, “Heathers” gave the snack a perhaps unwelcome shout-out, but otherwise, things were pretty quiet on the CornNuts front.
And then Nabisco (which is now part of Kraft Foods) purchased the family-owned company in late 1997; according to a New York Times blurb announcing it, Nabisco “said the strong Cornnuts presence in convenience stores would add to its sales” in that arena. In 2000, an AdAge piece described how Nabisco poured a lot of money into advertising CornNuts nationwide.
You may recall these “extreme” ads with the not-exactly-appetizing (but some would say entirely accurate) slogan, “Corn Gone Wrong.” You may also recall a certain innuendo-driven radio jingle that I refuse to believe was actually real but many people swear they remember hearing before it was banned. During this golden age of CornNuts, the snack was even used as a promotional tie-in for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (the fourth highest grossing movie in the U.S. at the time, 1999). And Nabisco debuted two new flavors, Taco and Red Hot, neither of which exist today, though we do have Nacho, BBQ, Ranch, and Chile Picante.
Speaking of Ranch and Chile Picante…this snack’s social media presence in 2018, when everyone is in on that game (from IHOP to Heinz to Reese’s and every fast food chain ever), is shockingly almost nonexistent. There’s a verified CornNuts Twitter account that’s reasonably active, but where are the splashy photos? Where are the memes?? I can see why they might shy away from their connection to “Heathers” in this day and age, but their overall transition from in-your-face advertisements, both on air and in print, to wallflowers of Wawa is a bit perplexing. It’s kind of refreshing, though, and even alluringly mysterious, how (at the time of this writing) their Facebook cover photo still touts the triumphant return of the aforementioned Ranch and Chile Picante flavors, which apparently happened back in 2013. And it seems they were once an official sponsor of UFC (The Ultimate Fighting Championship), but that ended in 2014.
All of this only serves to solidify my impression of CornNuts 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; it would probably be hard to tell, really—but, I’ve definitely been buying “artisanal” versions of CornNuts from fancy local grocery stores in the past few years on a semi-regular basis. They often call it “Inca corn” (sometimes it’s actually made from the larger choclo kernels) or just use the original “toasted corn” moniker, and pack it in plain plastic tubs or sell it from the bulk bin section, but the only additional flavorings I’ve come across are salt and pepper. Fanatics can try to make homemade corn nuts with any seasoning they desire, though they should keep their face and hands well away from the pot, as the corn can explode.
Other countries have their own CornNuts analogues, which makes sense, since corn is native to the Americas; it was first cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago and spread from there, 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 cancha salada, which is made with a different type of corn than choclo, although choclo can also be fried. 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 CornNuts, but basically the same idea. Their most popular brand is Boy Bawang (or Garlic Boy).
America’s own brand of desiccated crunchy corn chow has evolved from ancient subsistence food to bar stool nibble to casual car snack, and although today CornNuts seems to bank on their reputation as an underrated, often overlooked food (by mentioning that on their Twitter page and otherwise, seemingly doing absolutely nothing to market their product—which, clearly, they don’t in fact need to do), it’s hard to imagine them ever disappearing completely, cemented as they are in the fabric of our lives, though they may yet remain effectively trapped in amber, frequently forgotten.
When you do remember them, they’ll be there. If flying autonomous vehicles eventually become a reality, people will probably still grab those shiny little bags from whatever the future equivalent of gas stations and convenience stores will be, and they’ll fill their hover cars with that familiar sweet stench as they have a snack on their way to the Venusian plains, or the mighty canyons of Mars.
Because CornNuts have always existed in some form, and likely always will.