Until I read the comments on our most recent Takeout fantasy food draft, I didn’t realize how much chocolate mint was reviled. I thought it was a nice, pleasant flavor, a change from the spice of pumpkin, gingerbread, and eggnog, the other dominant tastes of this time of year. Plus it has chocolate!
However, I have learned that many of you think chocolate mint is gross. It reminds you of toothpaste. Well, fair enough. We are all entitled to our likes and dislikes. But if you’re whining about toothpaste, you’re onto something about how mint came to be a “holiday flavor.”
During the holidays, as you have undoubtedly observed, we tend to eat richer food than we normally do. This is a tradition of long-standing and was even more pronounced back in the Middle Ages, before there was industrial farming. People raised their own food. They slaughtered their animals in early winter. That meant big Christmastime feasts in order to consume all the foods that would have gone bad otherwise. After you eat a big, fatty meal, you want something cool and refreshing. Hence, mint, which grows just about everywhere.
During the Renaissance, when sugar began to become more plentiful, confectioners got to work making candy, and one of the flavors they used was mint, reports the invaluable Food Timeline. According to the book Sugarplums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets by Laura Mason, since both sugar and mint were both believed to have health benefits, the first mint candy was medicinal. Chocolate mint first appeared in the late 19th century when chocolate became cheaper and more widely available.
We can’t talk about mint at Christmas without discussing candy canes. There’s a charming story of a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany, in the late 17th century (or maybe in Indiana a couple of centuries later) who asked a local confectioner to create a hard candy for the local kids to suck on so they would keep quiet during the nativity scene. The confectioner made the candy in the shape of a crook because of the shepherds—or maybe the letter “J” because of baby Jesus. Anyway, the kids took the candy, sucked on it, and shut up. It’s unclear why they chose to flavor the little canes with peppermint—maybe they chose it because it was there and kids would eat it.
Our friends at Gizmodo looked into this little story and discovered it was probably just about as factual as the existence of Santa Claus. (I’m sorry to have to break this to you.) It is true, though, that peppermint candy was very popular at Christmastime, and the cane shape was handy for hanging on the branches of Christmas trees.
By the 1920s, candy canes were officially a thing in America. They came in many colors and flavors besides peppermint. But then came along an enterprising candy maker named Bob McCormack, who was looking to expand his share of the candy cane market. His only problem was that many of the canes kept breaking. Fortunately, Bob had an equally enterprising brother-in-law, a priest named Father Gregory Keller who, according to Gizmodo, invented something called the Keller Machine (“No, not the Dr. Who Keller Machine”) that automatically put the crook in the candy cane. Thanks to the Keller Machine, McCormack cornered the candy cane market. Since he, the candy cane king, decided that candy canes should be exclusively peppermint-flavored and that they should have red and white stripes, everyone else followed.
Well, they’re pretty anyway. And they still look nice on Christmas trees.