Meet the puffing gun.
It’s a whirling, steaming 3,200-pound machine that explosively puffs up and pumps out breakfast cereal. It’s a real showstopper, which must be why the fledgling Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) has chosen it as the centerpiece of its inaugural exhibit.
Early cereals really were puffed in guns.
Cereal puffing dates back to the emergence of industrial food production at the turn of the 20th century. The process was perfected using old Army cannons including some that had seen action in the Spanish American War. The Quaker Oats Company gave its new cereal a splashy public introduction at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis where eight bronze cannons cooked rice puffs and shot them over the watching crowds.
Popping the unpoppable.
Cereal makers have always looked at popcorn as the gold standard of puffs- simultaneously light, airy, crispy, and crunchy, while retaining the integrity of the corn itself. It gets that way because a kernel of corn consists of a hard shell surrounding a starchy center. When it’s heated the moisture in the corn turns to steam; contained inside the shell, the steam pressure builds and inflates the starch until eventually the puffed up kernel bursts through.
Grains like wheat and rice don’t have outer shells to trap steam so the pressure has to come from outside the kernels. A puffing gun builds up steam pressure inside a cooker (or cannon) filled with whole grains. When the vessel’s hatch is flung open, the sudden change in air pressure puffs the kernels on contact and shoots them out of the opening with an explosive rush of steam and a giant “kaboom!”
Later this summer the MOFAD folks will take a functioning puffing gun to parks, schools, and street locations around New York. BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Breakfast Cereal will explain the science behind cereal production and how Americans came to eat nearly three billion boxes of cereal every year.
Boom! is just the beginning.
The Museum of Food and Drink is in a pre-startup mode with unpaid staff members and a touring flatbed trailer in lieu of a bricks and mortar location. It’s an ambitious project that aims to do for food what the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum has done for aviation and space travel. To get there, MOFAD has stocked its board with talent and stature, including food world luminaries Mario Batali, Harold McGee, David Chang, Slow Food USA founder Patrick Martins, and modernist cooking pioneer Dave Arnold of the International Culinary Center.
Food has environmental, historical, economic, socio-cultural, industrial, and scientific dimensions; it touches all of our lives and presents some of the most challenging issues of our time. Yet there’s no American music singularly devoted to the subject. You can learn about the MOFAD mission to remedy the situation and contribute to that mission through the BOOM! project on Kickstarter.