A few years ago, we came close to a bona fide lemon stick crisis — not that many people other than Lance Humphries knew about it. The executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which hosts the Flower Mart festival where the treats have been sold for around 100 years, was informed by his supplier that they couldn’t find peppermint sticks.
Without the red-and-white candies, the lemon stick is simply a lemon. And selling the simple confection at $3 apiece “is a big part of how we pay for the festival,” Humphries said.
Candy canes wouldn’t work, Humphries said: “too hard” and not enough holes. The key to a lemon stick peppermint candy is porousness — you need to be able to suck the juice. He searched and searched for a replacement, test-driving alternatives by using them as straws to sip beverages. “We bought four or five different brands,” he said.
Fortunately for Flower Mart and fans of the Baltimore delicacy, Humphries eventually found a dupe that worked in the form of Bob’s Sweet Stripes. The future of the lemon stick was safe another year.
You can savor the sweet (and sour) yourself this Friday and Saturday as the celebration of plants, springtime and lemon sticks returns for, as Humphries calls it, “the kickoff to late spring and summer.”
With the forecast looking like it will cooperate, Baltimoreans can participate in a favored past time: eating lemon sticks and wondering if this was really such a good idea after all.
“You either like them or you don’t,” Humphries said. “I wouldn’t have them every day, but I like this sweet and tart concept.” He added later: “Unless you’re a sourpuss, you should like them.”
Chris Blauvelt remembers his first time trying one. A native of upstate New York, he had never heard of them until moving to Baltimore to attend Loyola University Maryland. “I thought it was the weirdest thing,” he said. “You’re just going to jam a peppermint into half a lemon?”
Well, yes, basically, though Humphries said the whole thing actually works better if you use most of a lemon, chopping off the top quarter or so of the fruit — otherwise “the juice tends to come over the top.” Also, the preparer should use a knife to nick the middle to create space to wedge the peppermint stick. In a perfect world, the eater should attempt to extract as much juice as possible from the lemon using the peppermint as a straw.
Blauvelt tried it, and liked it. “It was great. It’s refreshing. It’s something different.” And above all: “It’s one of those regional things that you don’t see anywhere else.”
So where did this thing come from?
Humphries found a 1925 article in The Baltimore Evening Sun about Flower Mart, then in its 15th year, which mentions “a large lemon with a peppermint stick coming out of it.” But the treats themselves are even older. A 1913 article in The Baltimore Sun describes children eating them on an excursion across the Chesapeake Bay. The author describes kids who “sucked peppermint stick stuck in lemons until they were sticky as flypapers.” That depiction, Humphries said, makes him think the desserts originated as an outdoor summertime amusement.
Flower Mart, through sheer endurance, kept it going.
A century later, they’re not only still here, they seem to be everywhere. “It’s just kind of had a blossoming as a Baltimore brand,” Humphries said.
Eddie’s of Roland Park sold adorable lemon stick Christmas ornaments last winter. The Charmery has an ice cream flavor inspired by them. Quality Snowballs has its own take, too. And Mount Vernon’s new Hotel Ulysses is serving up a “lemon schtick cocktail” at its Bloom’s bar with proceeds going toward the conservancy, Humphries said.
In a sign that lemon sticks have truly entered the mainstream, celebrity cook Chrissy Teigen posted about them on Instagram. “I had no idea these little Baltimore-born dreams existed!!” the ex-model wrote. (Teigen recommends taking out the peppermint stick to suck on it, which is really not how it’s done.)
“We were thrilled,” Humphries said of the Teigen shoutout. “It’s great press for us and Baltimore.”
Lemon sticks have a way of working their way into people’s hearts.
In 2016, Blauvelt and a friend started Balti’Marons, a business selling macarons. Among their offerings: an Old Bay caramel macaron, and another inspired by a Berger cookie. It reflects the passion of Baltimorons. “I think Baltimore is really unique in that people are very loyal to Maryland,” Blauvelt said. “You see the Maryland flag everywhere. People are really passionate about Baltimore — there’s a cult following behind Old Bay.”
When his company began selling at Flower Mart, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Blauvelt came up with a lemon stick macaron pop. Featuring a crushed peppermint and lemon filling with a full size peppermint stick jutting out, “it’s a fun little play on” the beloved Maryland tradition, Blauvelt said.
Get a lemon stick — or a lemon stick macaron pop — at this year’s Flower Mart, which takes place Friday and Saturday in Mount Vernon by the Washington Monument.