'The lemon stick started here,' both cities say tartly The Women's Civic League has always taken credit for the lemon stick.

May 01, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

We all know that our Washington Monument came before their Washington Monument inside that other Beltway. The plaque is our proof.

But the lemon stick. Ah, that's another story.

As one of those "you aren't from here" people, I always assumed that Baltimoreans were right when they said the lemon stick was invented here. Come on, hon, it's as much a part of today's Flower Mart as Mount Vernon Square and crab cakes.

But those we-did-everything-first Philadelphians also claim the lemon stick. They see it as much a part of the city's heritage as William Penn's statue on top of City Hall and the cheese steak. It's everywhere -- from the Devon Country Fair and Horse Show to the Rittenhouse Square Flower Market.

Here's what we know for sure: Both Philadelphians and Baltimoreans score the top of a fresh lemon and jam a candy stick inside to transform the fruit into a fruit drink. Philadelphians use a lemon candy stick and Baltimoreans prefer a peppermint stick; both candies have a porous center. And in both cities, the lemon stick is a part of civic pride.

But from here on fact fades into folklore. Which city is the real mother of the lemon stick? No one knows for sure. The dates of origin change as rapidly as the prices at a Sotheby's auction.

We talked to everyone -- from the genteel ladies of the Women's Civic League and the Devon Country Fair and Rittenhouse Flower Market to folklorists -- in order to get to the sour truth. Emotions are intense on each side.

A typically Philadelphia comment comes tongue-in-cheek from Mary Ann Hines of the Library Company of Philadelphia:

"We invented everything else," she said. "I'm sure that Benjamin Franklin made the first lemon stick."

Irene Kirby, who has been a member of Baltimore's Women's Civic League since 1968, says the league has always taken credit for the lemon stick.

"As far as I know these lemon sticks started with the first Flower Mart in 1911 and became the trademark," she says. "It's funny how things become legendary. Everyone assumes this is the way it always was. They didn't question it because it has always been that way. But, no one knows exactly when it began."

In fact, checks of old newspaper clippings in The Sun library find no mention of the lemon stick before 1940; cotton candy was the big treat mentioned in the early days. And the Maryland Room of the Pratt Library found a lemon stick reference no earlier than 1935.

One Philadelphia Inquirer story dates the lemon stick to 1949 at the Devon Country Fair. But Anne Kellett and Beverly Spahr, members of the Rittenhouse Square Flower Market Association, say they believe it dates to 1917 when the group decided to name the first Miss Rittenhouse, who sold lemon sticks from a basket.

Even those who get paid for knowing why we eat what we eat aren't sure of the maternity of the lemon stick.

Charlie Camp, state folklorist for the Maryland Arts Council and author of "American Foodways: What, When, Why and How We Eat in America" (August House, $19.95), says it doesn't surprise him that Philadelphia or any other major East Coast city would claim the lemon stick.

He says lemon sticks could be found in any of the East Coast cities with a tradition of street produce vendors. In fact, he thinks the origin may pre-date the genteel socialites of the Flower Mart and go back to the horse-drawn carts of the Arabbers -- who also lay claim to its invention.

Some old-time Baltimoreans, such as Margery Harress of Guilford, remember the lemon stick before the Flower Mart. Now 82, Mrs. Harress recalls sucking lemon sticks as a child when she visited the circus grounds in the late teens.

"I have no doubt that it's Baltimore's to claim," adds Mr. Camp.

But William Woys Weaver, a Paoli (Main Line Philadelphia) food historian, says he always thought the lemon stick went back to 18th century Europe.

"I think it's wrong to say the lemon stick was invented in Baltimore and it's wrong to say it was invented in Philadelphia," according to Mr. Weaver. "I know they had them in London."

But he can trace the lemon stick to the 1800s in Baltimore. He says they were served at Daniel Grant's Fountain Inn -- a famous culinary haunt that was known from Boston to the Carolinas and frequented by George Washington. It closed in the 1870s.

"The problem is a lot of people in the food business moved back and forth between Baltimore and Philadelphia," he says. "They were like sister cities. The guy who ran the Fountain Inn was from Philadelphia and some of our best caterers came from Baltimore."

And lemon sticks, in a somewhat different form, were consumed by Philadelphians during Prohibition.

"Back in the 1920s, there was something called the Blue Room at the Devon Horse Show grounds where you could get booze," Mr. Weaver says. "You could get lemon sticks, too. But there was vodka inside these lemons."

So, who's the real mother of the lemon stick? Nobody knows for sure.

Helen Rosenberg, who wrote a letter to the New York Times in 1987 in response to a story that mentioned Baltimore's lemon stick, has another idea entirely.

"My father, who was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1890s and never set foot in Baltimore, often explained his fondness for sucking lemons by recalling a favorite confection," she wrote. "It was half a lemon into which was stuck a long, thin, lemon-flavored candy stick, through which the lemon juice was sucked."

OK. So we don't know for sure who made the first lemon stick. But terrapin soup surely belongs to Baltimore, right? Oh no, what's this about serving the original terrapin soup at the Rittenhouse Club in Philadelphia? Here we go again.

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