Consider the lemon stick, a rite of spring in Baltimore.
The signature item of the annual FlowerMart, the lemon stick is a Baltimore thing in the way that Edgar Allan Poe is a Baltimore thing — because we want it to be, and because we say so.
"It's part of our pride of place," said folklorist Elaine Eff. "We own it."
The lemon stick is a peppermint candy stick jammed into the flesh of a lemon. There are traditional aspects of the lemon stick rite — buying it, having it and eating it. You suck on the stick, and, by and by, as the stick dissolves, you start to get the taste of stick and lemon, sweet and sour mixed together.
There is another, essential aspect of the lemon stick — knowing it's there.
If it didn't exist, would there still be a FlowerMart? When we think about FlowerMart, we think about the women in their spring hats, the new crop of Baltimore babies and the crab cakes. And we think about lemon sticks.
We need the lemon stick to complete the picture, to connect this year's edition with the first one, back in 1911, and all the FlowerMarts in between — the decades and decades when FlowerMart was on Wednesday, the ones they held during the wars, and even the FlowerMarts that were rained out, canceled, moved from Mount Vernon or knocked asunder.
And how long have the lemon sticks been at FlowerMart? It depends on whom you ask. Members of the Women's Civic League, which operated the annual festival from 1911 to 1999, would claim it as an invention of the FlowerMart, in the way the ice cream cone was introduced at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904.
There have been competing claims for the lemon stick from the organizers off the Rittenhouse Square Flower Market in Philadelphia and the annual Devon Country Fair in Devon, Pa.
"It came from France," said Carol Purcell. "[Members of the Women's Civic League] had seen it a festival in France. They thought it would make a great food icon at FlowerMart. That's the story that I've been told. There are a few other ones around."
Purcell was twice the FlowerMart chairwoman for the Civic League and is now the president of FlowerMart at Mt. Vernon Ltd., the nonprofit organization that took over control of the festival. The lemon stick forms part of the FlowerMart she remembers from the 1960s.
"All the corporate boys would take a crab cake and peppermint stick," she said. "They'd do the walk around FlowerMart, and take a box of lemon-peppermint back to the office."
The earliest mention of the lemon stick at the FlowerMart in The Baltimore Sun appears to be this, in the 11th paragraph of a May 4, 1924, aricle titled "Flower Mart Will Have Parisian Cafe, Gardens and Country Stall." After news about the American citizenship booth, the article notes, "Girls in sprightly costumes will thread the crowd selling boutonnieres, lemon sticks and caramels."
In 1934, the lemon sticks were still for kids. "Proud fathers … expressed the desire to taste one along with their little daughters and sons, but overcame the temptation for sake of propriety," The Sun reported. But by 1940, the lemon sticks were for everyone. "For only at this time do peppermint sticks and lemons appear in the hands of club women," The Sun reported.
From there, there was no stopping it. The 1948 event featured "a huge plaster of Paris model of the traditional lemon-with-a-peppermint stick," The Sun wrote.
Eff is among those who believe that lemon sticks were around before the first FlowerMart, in Baltimore and elsewhere. Eff said that old-timers have told her about eating lemon sticks on the steamboats that ran from Baltimore to Tolchester on the Eastern Shore. It was a treat mothers would give children to ward off queasiness.
We have the word of J. Marion Herman, resident of the Edward Apartments on Brookfield and Whitlock streets, who won fifth prize at age 9 in a 1911 essay contest published in The Sun. The piece, titled "An Exciting Start," was his account of a day in Tolchester with his family:
"In the afternoon we went in bathing and Margaret almost drowned. Soon after we had got dressed and it was time to leave. I never had any day that seemed so short. We spent the time watching the searchlights and eating lemon sticks."
The exact origins of the lemon stick may never be known, said food historian Joyce White, who considers it a folk food tradition.
"The lemon stick was probably a local tradition that was picked up on by one of the members of the Women's Civic League," White said. "Since the lemon stick is not a recipe but a method, it is very hard to do a traditional cultural collection [search] as you would with a recipe by trying to find the earliest possible recipe in a printed form. The origin of the tradition is almost always impossible to determine."
But Eff thinks it ultimately doesn't matter how the lemon stick got to FlowerMart, or whether it's a thing in other cities. At some point, the lemon stick became a Baltimore thing.
"These things exist in many, many different places. We don't grow lemons," Eff said. "But we have personalized it, we have Baltimorized it."
Purcell of the Women's Civic League agrees that the origin story doesn't matter. "The most important thing is that Baltimore has that as a food icon," she said.
If the lemon stick endures in our minds, it might have something to do with the power of taste and smell.
We might enjoy the sights of FlowerMart, but we don't start to feel something until we've had that first taste. When it comes to creating feelings, vision is a slowpoke.
"Smell, in particular, but taste, too, is much more directly wired to memory and emotion," said Randall Reed, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sensory Biology, which gathers experts in the fields of vision, touch, hearing and chemosensation — the combination of taste and smell.
Reed said he isn't surprised that the lemon stick gets people going.
"The combination of peppermint aroma and citrus aroma is a unique combination that's associated with a unique experience way back in time," he said.
Here's what's happening: "Essentially, it's a tight connection between a particular stimulus — a combination of taste and smell — and past experience, or memory," Reed said. "You link together, if not relive, associations with past experiences — which are memories — with current experiences."
The brain processes smells much more directly than sights, and there's a more a direct connection between smell and emotion.
Reed gives the example of how people experience H&S Bakery in Fells Point. "When we smell bread baking, it elicits a different reaction than if you just saw the H&S sign."
But is there something more to it? We asked a poet to consider the lemon stick. Elizabeth Spires directs the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College. She sent us her take on the lemon stick.
"In the Japanese tea ceremony, cups of bitter green tea are served with overpoweringly sweet confections. The sweetness of the dessert accentuates the bitterness of the tea," Spires said.
"It's almost shocking. The participant tastes each taste as if for the first time.
"The Baltimore lemon stick, served in slightly less formal surroundings, combines the sharp, sweet taste of peppermint with the wonderfully tangy taste of lemon, one of my favorite flavors. The two flavors intertwine. First one taste, then the other. Both are refreshing and mind-cleansing, but utterly different. The mouth and the mind try to sort out the puzzle but can't.
"The lemon stick may not be quite as satisfying as eating an ice cream cone, but on purely visual, tactile, and olfactory levels, it can't be matched."
For years, when the Women's Civic League ran the festival, it was the Arcadia Garden Club that sold the lemon sticks. This year, members of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy will sell them — about a thousand of them each day — for $2 each. The organization's share of the proceeds will fund a series of summertime entertainment events in the park.
Purcell said she'll be buying a lemon stick, but she won't be eating it. It will be for her grandson.
"I've moved on from the lemon and peppermint stick and given it to the next generation so they can have that memory," Purcell said. "It's a food icon that is imprinted at an early age."
If you go
The 2013 FlowerMart is 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mount Vernon Place and Washington Place (North Charles Street).
On both days, vendors will sell flowers, plants, accessories and arts and crafts. Entertainment, including bands, vocalists and dancing will unfold on two stages.
The main information booth is in front of the Peabody Institute at 1 East Mount Vernon Place. The lemon sticks will be sold at this location, too.
The food court forms a half circle on the west side of the monument. This year's lineup includes crab cakes, pit beef, Asian fare and kettle corn.
The Mayor's Arrival and Opening Ceremony are at noon on Friday on the Clarisse Mechanic Stage, located on the west side of the Washington Monument. The Grand Hat contest is at 2 p.m. on Friday on the Mechanic stage.
On Saturday, the West Park will host a Children's Camp from noon to 5 p.m., where children can make origami animals and Mother's Day cards.
The festival grounds are four blocks east of the light rail Centre Street stop. There is on-street parking near the event. On Friday, most of it is metered; some Saturday parking is free. There is $3 all-day parking at the lot at 15 W. Franklin St.