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."
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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."