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Allison Keene
Dietribes: The Stories Behind 5 Holiday Treats
by Allison Keene
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Here are some conversation starters about your favorite holiday treats, including eggnog, gingerbread and candy canes.

1. Eggnog

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Once a favored drink among the nobility and upper classes, eggnog is now enjoyed by anyone who walks into a grocery store. The word “noggin” means “small cup,” which is a good thing since making eggnog is supremely labor intensive, and possibly salmonella-inducing (so nog-in-a-box is probably still your best option). Consuming raw eggs (also an ingredient of Wassail, see below) can be risky business, but for the adventurous sorts you can find fancy recipes for the stuff here.

2. Gingerbread

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From The Straight Dope, “Ginger was used in England in Anglo-Saxon days. By the late medieval period, ginger was almost as popular as pepper, and was still considered to have therapeutic or medicinal value. Geoffrey Chaucer writes in 1386, ‘they sette him roial spicery and gyngebreed.’” Recipes for gingerbread go back as far as the 14th century.

Gingerbread is also an oddly popular and hardy building material. Each year, for instance, the White House displays a gingerbread “White House” in the State Room, and a plethora of gingerbread house competitions take places all over. In fact, life has taken to imitating art with the Gingerbread houses of Martha’s Vineyard – a neighborhood of tiny, brightly painted and ornamented houses. Gingerbread houses found in the woods are best left alone.

3.Candy Canes

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Legend has it that the candy cane started in Cologne, Germany around 1670, when an enterprising priest gave candy sticks to children in order to keep them quiet during services. The modern candy cane (if it can be called such) can be traced back to the 1920s, where Bob McCormack began making candy canes as special Christmas treats for his children, friends and local shopkeepers in Albany, Georgia. Making the candy was no Christmas joy - the pulling, twisting, cutting and bending could only be done on a local scale. But, in the 1950s, Bob’s brother-in-law Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest (full circle!), invented a machine to automate candy cane production. (And for the record, just because a candy cane also forms a “J’ and is eaten around Christmas doesn’t mean it has anything to do with what you think it does).

4. Fruitcake

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“The worst gift is fruitcake,” Johnny Carson once suggested. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” If that is the case, it is altogether possible this fruitcake has been passed around since cheap sugar first arrived in Europe from the colonies in the 16th century, which makes perfect sense. According to this highly entertaining article, “some goon discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in successively greater concentrations of sugar, intensifying color and flavor. Not only could native plums and cherries be conserved, but heretofore unavailable fruits were soon being imported in candied form from other parts of the world. Having so much sugar-laced fruit engendered the need to dispose of it in some way—thus the fruitcake.”

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If your distaste of fruitcake runs deep, you might find some enjoyment in the Annual Fruit Cake Toss in Manitou Springs, CO. It’s not all waste - comestibles must be donated to local food banks in order to participate.

5. Wassail

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“Oh here we come a-wassailing / Among the leaves so green, / Oh here we come a-wandering / So fair to be seen.”

The word wassail derives from Old Norse ves heill, meaning “be well.” During the reign of Henry VIII, a caroling tradition began in England where merrymakers would carry a large wooden bowl of wassail from house to house dancing, singing and drinking (the original fraternity row keg party). The wassail was served warm and usually contained ale or cider, roasted apples, beaten eggs, sugar and spices. Soft toast was floated on the surface, and so thus potentially began the custom of drinking a toast.

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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