Once again at Christmastime I was telling a disinterested gentry about the dearth of popcorn balls, and I expect this to go on as long as I do. The new-day bag of kernels to be processed in a microwave oven hardly meets the requirements of Christmas cornballs such as I knew when we popped corn by the Yuletide bushel to provide essential popcorn balls and ornamental strings of popcorn to deck the halls and the tree, and then feed chickadiddles when the tree came down after twelftide. Christmas of 1947 makes a good place to start. So there!
We had built a new house and moved in before snow flew. The house had a four-foot fireplace in the living room, so we would be popping our Christmas corn over open maple embers instead of a kitchen range and hot stove lids. For a fireplace we needed a sheet-steel popper on a long handle, instead of the screen-wire kind that's used on a stove. In good time I approached our hardware merchant and stated my desire.
The hardware business had been undergoing some changes. The old-time ironmonger was becoming a chain-store purveyor, and his principal owner was based in Dallas, or in Australia somewhere.
I used to go into a hardware store, any hardware store, and get a box of No. 6 wood screws, inch and a half, for 38 cents, charged to my account at 20 percent off. Then all at once screws came six to a plastic envelope, bar-coded and cheap at 75 cents. Not only that, but I used to know the clerk, and he waited on me. Now I had to find what I wanted and pay some cashier I never saw before.
So I needed a sheet-steel popcorn popper, and my erstwhile hardware man said he had no idea but would try, and it usually takes three weeks. "Unless," he said, "you might find one at some place like Edwards & Walker."
I had known Edwards & Walker as wholesale hardware merchants serving Maine retailers well, and now and then a store would tell me it didn't have such-and-such in stock, but would call Edwards & Walker and have it tomorrow. Edwards & Walker was based in a four-story store and warehouse on Monument Square in the heart of Portland. They had been there since before Noah's flood. I rightly assumed Edwards & Walker would of course have a sheet-steel popcorn popper, and before long an errand took me that way and I walked in.
It was as quiet as any library locked up for the night. Whether Edwards & Walker were aware they were headed into the twilight of hardware merchandising I know not, but the silence and the dim light boded no care about the future. The younger Mr. Edwards was there, and he spoke to me, leaning on his two canes. "Good morrow!" quoth he. Responding, I said, "Gie ye good den, sir!" He said, "May I have the pleasure of assisting you?" I came within an ace of asking him to recite the Nun's Priest's Tale, but decided it would take more time than I had. Instead, I said I'd like a sheet-metal popcorn popper.
"Yes, sir," he said. Then he turned and blew a little whistle on the speaking tube. I hadn't seen a speaking tube since I was four years old and would talk to Mrs. Ulrica Benck on the top floor and say, "Wee gates!" She would come down three flights, tousle my hair, and give me a Pfeffernuss. Now, Mr. Edwards said into the tube, "Iffing dooler bunjup tiller whup?" and somebody replied, "Waddles-nerp."
Then to me Mr. Edwards said, "They come eight to a carton. Where do you want these shipped?"
I submit, hoping you're attentive, that this makes a fine way to handle a hardware business, and I rightly considered that I had nothing to worry about. None of that chain-store stuff. I said, "That would figure 18 cartons to the gross?" Mr. Edwards said, "How many gross do you need?"
"This is a retail sale," I said, "and I need only one popper, but I surmise sheet-iron popcorn poppers are on the skids, and I'll take three cartons if you'll be so good."
"Certainly," he said. "But you'll do well to go to our third floor and do business with Teddy. He handles retail. The stairs are yonder, to the right. I'll tell him you're on your way."
AS I turned away, he was puckering for the speaking-tube whistle. I kept one popper and gave the others to family and friends. We popped popcorn for many Christmases and made popcorn balls and strings of popcorn for our trees. I believe Edwards & Walker are no longer in business, and I wish I could give you information about the speaking tube.
When I got to the third floor that day, Teddy was waiting for me. He had a long white beard and looked like Father Time. Instead of scythes, he was counting stock on horseshoe blanks. Farriers bought blanks and then shaped them on their own forges to fit the horses. Saved time. I'd guess Edwards & Walker had seven tons of horseshoe blanks when they liquidated. And lots of poppers.
It's pretty hard nowadays to find either. If you want to try popcorn balls, Fanny Farmer has a recipe, and after you've made enough for a family's Christmas you'll want a good detergent to get sticky molasses off all the doorknobs. Sticky doorknobs were one way to measure the success of Christmas.
Don't worry about chickadiddles. Put the tree, popcorn strings and all, on the back porch. The birdies will be there before you can get in the house.