The Secret Is Out on This Mid-Atlantic Summertime Treat

Thanks to social media and creative iterations, the lemon-peppermint stick has taken on a life of its own.

Lemon-peppermint stick
Lemon-peppermint stick | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Lemon-peppermint stick | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

When most people think of summer treats, dripping ice cream cones, sugar-dusted funnel cakes, and sticky snow cones come to mind. But the idea of sticking a peppermint stick straight into the flesh of a halved lemon and using it like a straw to suck up citrusy juice? Well, until recently, that was a memory reserved for a select few who grew up in Baltimore.

The lemon-peppermint stick, as it’s known colloquially, is a spring and summertime treat that started being sold at the city’s annual Flower Mart festival many decades ago. But thanks to social media and some local makers putting their own creative spin on it, the secret is out on this Mid-Atlantic summer treat.

“I think I was just born knowing about lemon sticks—I can’t recall the first time I heard about them,” says David Alima, who owns Baltimore ice cream shop The Charmery. “I just remember having them when I was little, getting sticky hands, and figuring it out from there.”

In fact, accounts of when the first lemon-peppermint stick was crafted are a little fuzzy. According to the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy (MVPC), which puts on the Flower Mart festival, one of the earliest documented records of the treat came from a newspaper clipping in 1913, two years after the festival began. The article states that a group touring the Chesapeake Bay “sucked the peppermint stick stuck in lemons until they were as sticky as fly papers.”

“It doesn’t get much clearer than that,” says MVPC executive director Lance Humphries. “But accounts of them really started picking up in the 1930s and ’40s, and it seems to have come from this carnival-type experience of what you would do on a fun day in the summer. It’s definitely a regional thing and, until the past couple of years, was something that 99 percent of people associated with being at the Flower Mart.”

The Charmery
Lemon Stick ice cream from The Charmery | Photo by DJ Impulse

The snack is so regional, in fact, that people who grew up only 30 minutes away had never heard of it. “I thought it was weird, seeing this peppermint stick stuck into a lemon,” says Jayce Flickinger, who owns local bars Grand Cru and Market Bar, and grew up outside of Washington DC. “My first experience was walking around Flower Mart when I was 25. And I was like ‘Oh, I get it now.’ You know, it’s hot out and the citrusy mint is such a nice reprieve from the heat.”

Flickinger took it one step further and now offers a frozen cocktail inspired by the treat at Market Bar. When figuring out what to put in the bar’s two-sided slushie machine, he knew frosé would be an instant hit, and the Meletti Limoncello he had just gotten in sparked the other idea. The bar’s Lemon Stick slushie combines limoncello, a housemade mint-basil syrup, and Branca Menta (like a mint-forward Fernet), all topped with a peppermint stick.

The slushie isn’t the only spin-off in town. In recent years, people have made candles, macarons, snowballs, and ice cream flavors. In fact, it was one of The Charmery’s original flavors when the ice cream shop opened in 2013.

“To put it into ice cream form just kind of felt like a no-brainer,” Alima says. “We use a lemon base, add peppermint flavor, and candy cane bits. We always run it for at least a month and people can’t wait for it. It’s definitely achieved cult status.”

Typically, Alima says he likes to use soft peppermint sticks—like these from King Leo—which is authentic to the original lemon stick. But he opted for regular candy canes this year due to a shortage in the market.

“The challenge with lemon sticks is that the peppermint sticks have to be porous, and there was a shortage of them this year,” Humphries says, adding that they ended up selling a whopping 4,000 of the treats at this year’s Flower Mart. “We looked far and wide to find them, because you really need those soft channels in the peppermint to absorb the lemon juice.”

One possible explanation for the shortage? The cat came out of the bag when Chrissy Teigen posted about the lemon-peppermint stick on her Instagram after they were served at a crab boil she threw for her staff. (Rumor has it that Chef Paul Barbosa’s assistant is a Baltimore native, which is how the lemon-peppermint stick got added to the menu.)

Local leaders acknowledge that the summer dessert is an ideal symbol for its birth city. “To look at a lemon stick for the first time, it’s hard to imagine how the sweet and tart combination will blend perfectly in your mouth,” says Trish McClean, the CMO of Visit Baltimore. “Just like Baltimore, our beloved lemon stick will surprise you. It’s an apt treat for a city that embraces contradictions.” 

But now tutorials for the regional treat are also showing up on TikTok, a sure sign that the lemon-peppermint stick may be starting to outgrow its local roots.

“There are so many unique, fun, and hidden things in cities like Baltimore,” Humphries says. “And now with social media making things more shareable and accessible to everyone, the world is starting to discover them.”

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.