The Sweet-And-Sour Baltimore Treat You've Probably Never Heard Of

When you think of peppermint sticks — if you even think of candy canes at all outside of the few weeks on either side of Christmas — what comes to mind as a flavor pairing? Chocolate, most likely. After all, these candies play a starring role in peppermint bark, and they're frequently employed as stir sticks in fancied-up mugs of hot chocolate. Peppermint with coffee also works, as anyone privy to Starbucks' secret-menu candy cane cold brew (as well as its not-so-secret peppermint mocha) knows very well. What about peppermint candy + lemon, though?

If you're turning up your nose at the thought of such a thing, convinced that peppermint and lemon do not a natural pairing make, chances are you've never visited Baltimore, Maryland in the summertime when street festivals are in full swing. "Lemon stick season" officially kicks off in late April or early May with the arrival of spring at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy Flower Mart. The best way to enjoy the abundance of beautiful bloomage is with a garden hat on your head and a peppermint-poked lemon in your hand, sucking up sweet and sour stickiness through your candy cane straw while trying to stay one step ahead of the bees that want a taste, too.

Lemon sticks are ridiculously simple to make

What, exactly, constitutes a lemon stick? It's the simplest recipe in the world: Just cut the top off a fresh lemon, and stuff a peppermint stick in it. While you can use the thinner, shinier, Christmas-style candy canes if you break off the hook part, this treat works even better with the fatter, more porous peppermint sticks, such as the kind sold at Dollar Tree. Once the peppermint stick collapses (as it inevitably will), you can just go ahead and eat the candy-infused lemon, rind and all. Trust: It's a little weird, but totally delicious.

Baltimore Magazine admits that the concept of marrying peppermint candies and lemons may not have originated in its eponymous city. It's possible that this tradition has origins in France, and it may have come to the U.S. by way of New Orleans. In 1911, nevertheless, the Women's Civic League of Baltimore latched onto this new summertime sensation and began selling lemon sticks at its annual flower show. More than a century later, sales are still going strong. Even this past spring, when the Flower Mart stuck to an all-virtual format due to COVID-19 precautions, they sold lemon stick kits online so no one would have to miss out on the annual tradition. The boxes contained a couple of lemons, a couple of peppermint sticks (plus one more as a spare), and a packet of flower seeds so customers could enjoy some IRL blooms with their springtime treat.

The lemon stick isn't strictly a Charm City thing

By now, Flower Mart has become practically synonymous with lemon sticks, making them a Baltimore specialty on par with crab cakes or the iconic seasoning that is Old Bay. A 2018 Reddit thread, however, reveals that folks throughout the rest of Maryland aren't all that familiar with the traditional refreshment. Based on the comments, lemon sticks are known to some extent in Anne Arundel, Howard, and Carroll counties, while they are so not a thing in areas like Prince George's and Montgomery.

One Redditor said they thought of lemon sticks as being from the New Jersey or Philadelphia area, although they admitted to having seen them sold in Ocean City on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Another mentioned having seen the peppermint candy + lemon combo on Cape Cod years ago, while TheCupbearer food blog speaks of their making an appearance at a school event in Virginia. Perhaps the farthest afield we've known lemon sticks to be, however, is in Irwindale, California, where they appear on the menu of a vendor called The Apple Tree at The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire.