Popcorn Primed for the Pine


Any day now I will begin the annual holiday ritual of making strings of popcorn to decorate the Christmas tree.

While humming a Christmas carol, I will take the package of popcorn out of its plastic wrap. I will beep the popcorn in the old family microwave. Then, before I pick up the old needle and thread, I will stuff the popped popcorn in a plastic bag and store it, for a few hours, in the old family freezer.

The stay in the freezer is a new twist in the procedure. I got the idea from an anonymous tree-decorating tipster, who phoned in the suggestion last year after I had groused, in print, that I always lost the family popcorn-stringing competition.

The tipster was male. He probably felt a sense of kinship with me, another guy who had struggled with needle and thread. Overcome, no doubt, with the spirit of the season, the guy wanted to help me defeat my wife, who is the perennial champion of the family's popcorn-stringing competition.

Putting the popcorn in the freezer would toughen the kernels, the tipster told me. This meant they were less likely to crumble when I jabbed them with the needle and inched them down the thread.

This interested me because, having analyzed my previous defeats, I had concluded that my jabbing and inching skills were weak. When I jabbed, the popcorn kernels had a tendency to disintegrate. This led to occasional bleeding fingers and plenty of bloody language.

Moreover, when I tried to inch a successfully skewered popcorn kernel down the string, it often would bail out, disappearing faster than the estranged husband of Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz.

In previous years I have tried to make the kernels stronger by "curing" them in the air. Rather than stringing the kernels immediately after they had popped, I let the popcorn sit in big pots, with the lids off, sometimes for days at a time. This open-air toughening process, sort of an Outward Bound for popcorn kernels, did seem to help. But it took forever.

It meant you had to pop the corn one night, then wait at least a day before you could string it up. This required a lot of planning and a lot of free time. I am short on both, especially around the holidays.

But, according to the tipster, if I tossed the popped corn into the freezer, the corn could be ready to string in a few hours. Sadly, I learned about the frozen-popcorn trick last year after our tree had been decorated. Nevertheless, I tried stringing up a batch of frozen popcorn, just for practice.

I was impressed. The frozen popcorn cut my stringing time in half. I didn't quite feel as nimble as a tailor, but I no longer regarded the needle as a threat against my well-being.

Working with the frozen popcorn, I could jab with abandon. I could inch with ease. Why in no time, I had transformed a skinny string into a thick, decorative white rope.

This year when my clan gathers for our popcorn-stringing competition, I have a plan. The rest of the competitors will be stringing up air-cured popcorn. But I will have my secret weapon. In my bowl will be the tougher, easy-stringing popcorn, the frozen stuff.

Who knows, I may become such a popcorn-stringing dervish that for the first time in the history of my family, we may end up with too many strings of popcorn for the tree.

If we have leftovers, I may wrap them on a holly tree in our back yard. Not only would this decorate the tree, it would provide yuletide snacks for the wild birds.

I got this idea from Dana Limpert, urban wildlife biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Wild Acres program in Annapolis.

For several Christmas seasons now, Ms. Limpert has been urging Marylanders to trim outdoor trees with food, such as strands of popcorn and cranberries. The cranberries actually have more nutritional value than the popcorn, she told me in a phone interview. More substantial snacks for the birds can be provided, she said, by making garlands of large raisins, chunks of dried fruit and peanuts still in the shell.

Such decorative fare could feed birds that spend the winter in Maryland. They include cardinals, bluebirds, house sparrows, woodpeckers, flickers, juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice and starlings, Ms. Limpert said. These birds won't have any problems dealing with string or punching through peanut shells, she said. She did caution that folks who have rodent problems might want to think twice about putting food out in the back yard, where the rodents, in addition to birds, could feast.

If the frozen corn lands me the title of fastest popcorn stringer, I may celebrate by making a few snack strings for the cardinals who live in our downtown Baltimore neighborhood. A seasonal treat for the "birds in the hood."

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