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Know Your Sweets: Candy Canes

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios Mullins]

The Basics

It's doubtful that there's a candy connoisseur among us who hasn't enjoyed the sticky-fingered bliss of a minty-fresh candy cane. With their inimitable red and white stripes and crooked neck, candy canes practically have the holiday season written all over them.

Similar Candies

Peppermint Bark, Peppermints, Stick Candy, Rock Candy, Peppermint Patties

Spotlight Ingredient: Peppermint Oil

A naturally occurring hybrid of spearmint and water mint, peppermint is one of the most ancient flavoring agents used in cooking and food preparation. While the term "peppermint" did not come into widespread use until 1696, it's believed that the majority of references to "mint" in ancient texts refers to the peppermint plant. The first recorded mention of mint dates back to Egypt in 1500 BC, where it was used primarily as a digestive aid for treating upset stomachs and cramps, as well as for currency. The plant made its way to Europe by 1240 AD, where its uses ranged from tooth cleaner to rat repellant for cheese-makers.

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A peppermint plant [Photograph: Wikipedia]

Peppermint was brought to America by the colonists, who were surprised to learn that Native Americans also were using mints native to the United States. The varieties brought over by settlers soon caught on and spread across northern and eastern parts of the United States, where they are still grown today.

Aside from its various medicinal and household uses, peppermint oil is primarily found in candies and baked goods, with savory cooks often opting for less potent mint flavoring options. Peppermint oil snobs, take note: English peppermint oil is largely considered to be far more potent and higher quality than American peppermint oil.

Spotlight City: Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral is where eager children first enjoyed this sugary treat in 1670, crafted by a local candymaker on behalf of the church. In 1996, the cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site—though probably not because of its confectionery connections.

Variations

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Chocolate-covered candy canes[Photograph: Jessie Oleson Moore]

While traditional peppermint continues to be the seasonal stronghold, the number of candy-makers in recent years eager to capitalize on the high-status position of the candy cane during the holidays is overwhelming. Spree, Starburst, and Jolly Rancher all have tried their hand at making candy canes colorful and fruity, while a few very adventurous companies have attempted pickle-flavored and, of course, bacon-flavored candy canes. With 1.76 billion candy canes created each December, you can rest assured there is a novelty flavor to spark your fancy.

History

Living Creches (read: live nativity scenes) were one of the most important parts of Christmas Eve programming at Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany in the 1600s. In 1670, in order to keep rowdy children quiet during the event, the church choirmaster asked a local candymaker to create a sugar stick that could be handed out to the children as a kind of sugary pacifer. The choirmaster's instructions included making the sticks have a crooked-neck resembling a shepherd's hook in order to remind the children about the shepherds mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth. The practice was adopted quickly by other churches across Europe, as candy canes also became woven into the fabric of Christmas as popular decorations on Christmas trees.

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios Mullins]

Until the late 1800s, candy canes were entirely white, and often appeared in both the crooked-neck and straight stick candy form throughout Europe and America. The first recipe for the red-striped version appeared in 1844, with Bob McCormack of McCormack's Candies credited with popularizing this more decorative version of the candy cane in the 1920s. By 1922, the Bunte Brothers, confectioners from Chicago, had submitted patents on the first-ever candy cane making machine, which revolutionized the widespread presence of the sweet during the holiday season.

Pop Culture

"Candy Cane Lane" is an official designation given to streets in cities across North America that are hotspots for Christmas lights and decorations each year. The location of these streets span from Candy Cane Lane in Yuma, Arizona to Candy Cane Lane in Pocahontas, Arkansas.

For the serious candy cane enthusiast among us, there's no better way to let your mint-loving flag fly than by downloading this candy cane font.

Like what you read? Check out more histories of your favorite sweets here!

About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.

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