For many people all over the world, the advent of the December holiday season triggers a desire for the sickly sweet and minty goodness of traditional classic peppermint candy canes. For lucky Marylanders, peppermint stick cravings resurface every May at the Baltimore Flower Mart which ushers in lemon stick season, a regional tradition that employs a unique and creative blending of peppermint stick candy with lemons to create a beloved summer treat.

A porous peppermint stick inserted into a lemon makes a lemon stick. Cutting the ends off of the candy, or cutting the candy shorter, can make it easier to suck lemon juice through the candy. (Jason Whong / OutLook by the Bay)

Peppermint sticks are a type of boiled sweet that became popular in the 17th century. At that time sugar became more widely used in Europe and North America because its price dropped reflecting a rise in the number of sugar plantations that used enslaved workers, a sinister side to satisfying a sweet tooth. As a result, recipes for plain or flavored boiled sugar candies became common in European cookbooks by the mid-17th century. Common flavors at that time included lemon, orange, bergamot, barberry, raspberry, apricot, rose, violet, caraway, pistachio, almond, ginger, and, of course, mint. Coincidentally, an unproven yet widely circulated story asserts that candy canes emerged in the 1670s when a German choirmaster at Cologne’s cathedral commissioned a confectioner to make stick candy in the shape of shepherd’s crooks (or some argue in the shape of an inverted J for Jesus) to give to children during the Christmas live nativity to keep them quiet during the service.

Despite not knowing precisely when or where candy canes were first made, evidence suggests that they were not popular in America until the nineteenth century, a time when sugar was even more affordable and available in some form or other to most people. It was also a time when Christmas became more widely celebrated across the country and started to center on children rather than adults. August Imgard, a Bavarian-born immigrant who settled in Wooster, Ohio, is often given credit for being “the man who brought the Christmas tree idea to America” in 1847 and for decorating the tree with candy canes, and so introducing them to Americans. Unfortunately, Imgard neither introduced Christmas trees to America — records prove one was displayed in York, Pennsylvania in 1840 — nor can he be praised for introducing candy canes to America because his daughter Gertrude recounted in a 1938 interview that paper chains, German kuchen (cookies) and gilded nuts filled with scrolls of paper printed with messages and poems were the traditional ornaments her family used on their Christmas trees; she made no mention of candy canes at all.

In contrast, the earliest bona fide evidence I can find placing candy canes in America is from a December 1863 advertisement where they are listed for sale at the shop of Charles Hall from Findlay, Ohio. From that point on, numerous American confectioners made and sold them across the country thus confirming their place in America’s hearts. In those early days all candy canes were made and shaped by hand until the process was mechanized in the 1950s with machinery invented by Father Gregory Keller, brother-in-law to Bob McCormack of McCormack’s Famous Candy Company of Albany, Georgia, a leading maker of candy canes. As a result, Keller’s machines and the McCormack candy company revolutionized the candy cane trade with the introduction of mass production which led to mass consumption by enthusiastic candy cane eaters.

Once the winter holidays are over, the consumption of peppermint stick generally wanes; however, peppermint season happily starts once again every May at the Baltimore Flower Mart, an annual event started in 1911 by the Women’s Civic League. Lemon sticks are made by inserting a soft, porous peppermint stick (available at shops such as Graul’s and the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Annapolis) into the flesh of a lemon and using it as a straw to extract the lemon’s juice resulting in a sweet mingling of mint and lemon. Marylanders proudly assert that lemon sticks originated for the first time ever at the first flower mart in 1911, but Philadelphians challenge this claim by asserting that they were created by the Rittenhouse Square Flower Market Association in 1917. Evidence is scant to prove either theory. The earliest documented mention of lemon sticks in Baltimore dates to a 1924 newspaper article revealing that a five-foot high giant lemon stuck with a protruding peppermint stick was planned for that year’s Flower Mart. The year 1924 also saw the burglary of lemons and peppermint sticks from a Baltimore business (police concluded it must have been some local boys). It’s clear by these accounts that though no mention of lemon sticks can be found earlier than 1924, they were clearly a firmly-rooted fixture in Baltimore by that time, suggesting a much earlier date of origin.

Whether your preference is for traditional holiday candy canes or for the refreshing taste sensation of summer lemon sticks, Marylanders have a passionate relationship with peppermint candy, one they can enjoy in May or December.

Joyce, a food historian, can be contacted through www.atasteofhistory.net.

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