Peppermint Everything--Yuck!

I have a friend whose most vivid Christmas memory centers on a bowl of peppermint ice cream. It was nothing fancy—unlike say, the white-chocolate-and-peppermint-bark version Häagen-Dazs brings out this time of year. Just the plain old Kroger grocery-store brand, the stuff available only during the holidays and billed rather grandly as a "limited edition." Clearly, his may not have been the happiest of childhoods (into his adolescence, the bowl was accompanied by a shot of Wild Turkey poured by his grandfather), but I get it. It's all about the anticipation and the symbolism. When the ice cream hits the dairy case, good times are ahead; when it departs, they're over. "Peppermint and the holidays is this almost sacred combo," says Joel Dondis, owner of Sucré, a sweets emporium in New Orleans that sells peppermint drinking chocolate and marshmallows, candy-cane macaroons, and peppermint white-chocolate truffles. "Every year we sell out."

Dairies across the country (Dreyer's/Edy's, Turkey Hill, Blue Bunny, to name a tiny few) still produce old-fashioned pink peppermint ice cream for the holidays, and Cold Stone Creamery ups the ante with a dark-chocolate version. But like Sucré, outfits other than ice-cream makers are getting in on the limited-edition act. As I write, there are peppermint lattes and peppermint Frappuccinos available at Starbucks; the Denny's menu features an indecipherable item referred to as Peppermint Pancake Puppies. Hershey's is offering bags of Candy Cane Kisses.

"In England, the holidays are more about puddings, cakes, chocolates. But here it's the candy cane," says Sucré's executive pastry chef, Tariq Hanna, who grew up in both England and Nigeria. "I swear, at this time of year we could put peppermint in anything and sell it. Right now I'm working on putting a peppermint twist on a yule log."

Candy canes might be the iconic American sweet, but like most Western Christmas traditions, they originated in Germany. There is an almost ridiculous amount of myth surrounding their origin and meaning: turn them upside down and the J is meant to stand for Jesus; the three red stripes mimic soldiers' stripes; no, they stand for the Holy Trinity. The truth seems to be that the canes were originally straight white sticks of sugar candy until a German choirmaster bent them into the shape of a shepherd's crook sometime in the late 17th century and passed them out to children at a Christmas church service to kept them quiet. The custom took off, and the stripes and peppermint flavoring were added in about 1900.

They may be iconic, but I happen to hate candy canes. Dangerously hard, one--dimensional in flavor, and far too sweet, they may be most useful when shoved into a child's mouth to suck on in church. I'm with my friend: it is only when they are crushed and swirled into something creamy and rich that memories are made. A little Wild Turkey doesn't hurt either.