When you think of Christmas, a few flavors probably come to mind–like gingerbread, cocoa, and eggnog. But one flavor stands out above the rest: peppermint. From Frango Mint Chocolates (first made famous by Chicago retail legend, Marshall Field’s), to the ubiquitous candy cane, peppermint is the unofficial flavor of the season. So, with that in mind, I thought it prudent to dive into the history of peppermint, to make sure everyone’s in the know!
First, some botany! Known scientifically as mentha piperita, peppermint is thought to be a naturally occurring hybrid of watermint and spearmint, native to the Middle East and Europe. A thriving plant, it’s proven to grow in moist environments in many other parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. In fact, mint is known to grow pretty much wherever it’s planted. At one point, Michigan was a major player in the mint game, accounting for about 90 percent of the world’s mint oil production. Today, Michigan still produces a bit, but not as much as the Pacific Northwest, where the bulk of the United States’ mint supply comes from.
Mint, as a medicinal product, has a long, storied past. Many accounts date the use of peppermint back to ancient Egypt, where dried peppermint leaves, from 11th century BC, were alleged to have been found in the pyramids. The ancient western world, including the aforementioned Egyptians, along with the Greeks, and Romans used peppermint to aid upset stomachs. Hundreds of years later, in the 17th century, peppermint was again used like it was Pepto from the past, which is to say for indigestion, nausea, and diarrhea, along with colic, seasonal colds, and even menstrual issues. Does it really help any of that? Maybe, but the jury is still out. Actually, when ingested in high doses, peppermint can actually produce a similar sensation to heartburn. That being said, peppermint’s cooling effect can give some relief to those experiencing minor cases of inflammation or discomfort. Plus, there’s some research to suggest peppermint’s aroma can increase one’s memory and alertness. It’s (neuro)science!
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Today, mint is used in all sorts of things, from jelly, to TUMS, to toothpaste. As for its modern day use in candy, no one is quite sure how that started. Altoids, the popular, and curiously strong mints were invented in 1780, long before Pep-O-Mint LifeSavers hit the scene in 1912, and peppermint Pez candies were created in 1927. So, you could go with Altoids as the originator of the peppermint candy, but I wouldn’t call that definitive by any means. Safe guess the next time you’re at trivia? Sure. Stone cold fact? Ehh.
How about candy canes, that classic Christmas sweet? Well, that story is even more unclear. One popular legend suggests candy canes originated in Germany as early as the late 1600s. According to the tale, a German choirmaster needed a way to keep his young choir quiet after their performance at the beginning of a Christmas concert, so he had a local confectioner whip up sugar sticks for them to consume. Since this was a candy you suck rather than chew, he figured this would keep the kids quiet for the rest of the concert. Because the performance was in church, he also needed a way for the top brass to allow this breach in church etiquette, so he had the sticks shaped like shepherd crooks as a symbol of Christ the Good Shepherd, and in remembrance of the first visitors of the baby Jesus–the Shepherds.
Is any of that true? Who knows. Some say that’s the way it went down. Others claim it was actually the inventor the Christmas tree who also invented the candy cane to be used as tree ornaments. Others still suggest different accounts. The only thing we can be certain of is that we’ll probably never be certain of candy cane origins. As for when peppermint became the flavor of choice for candy canes? That probably wasn’t until somewhere in the 19th century. The first mention (at least in the United States) of peppermint flavored sugar sticks don’t show up until the 19th century. While today you can find many varieties of candy cane, from fruit-flavored to spearmint, it’s peppermint that remains most traditional.
There you have it! From an ancient medicine to a cherished holiday confectionary, peppermint as been around for a long time. For a few holiday treats that feature peppermint, check out the following recipes: Peppermint Mocha, Candy Cane Pie, Peppermint Patties, Candy Canes, and Peppermint Bark.
Related Video: Put Extra Candy Canes to Good Use
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