Photo: Stephanie Vaeth

WHO ROASTS CHESTNUTS ANYMORE?

The world unquestionably cannot deny the ubiquity of the sweet, aromatic beauty of peppermint.

From first landing in the bellies of the ancient Egyptians to the ambrosial  peppermint mocha consumed while this is written, peppermint’s place as a staple flavor sits firmly on the tongue as the holiday’s most practical and aesthetically integral flavor. 

The history of practical peppermint usage has taken many shapes and crunchy, chewy, sweet, and savory tastes throughout the centuries. The flavor itself is the product of oil from the peppermint plant, a hybridization of the spearmint and watermint plant. The oil’s history predates the Common Era, and is found in multiple historical texts including the Bible, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and ancient Greek texts. Early in the oil’s practical usage, it was a natural remedy for bowel irritations and bodily sores.

In the Middle Ages, it was used to keep the teeth of monks pearly white. Peppermint, seen as the sharp and spicy member of the mint family, and was believed to be a natural aphrodisiac in ancient Greek life. Thus it was forbidden from soldiers who were ordered to avoid temptation. If peppermint doesn’t spark a steamy romantic holiday rendezvous then nothing will.

Like many other holiday traditions, peppermint receives a fair amount of flack for its apparent arbitrary connection to the season. It’s true. Peppermint doesn’t appear in the traditional biblical Christmas story. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are not the lofty fanciful names that the three wise men gave peppermint. Let’s compare this to actual complete arbitrariness like “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Scratch that. Who roasts their own chestnuts anymore?

Look at Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer. Holy cow that’d be insanely frightening. The world embraces the healing properties of peppermint, and faultlessly applied it to what has become the most commercially stressful time of the year. So instead of trying to burn some nuts in a fireplace to get a holiday fever on, how about a relaxed kickback with some Caribou Coffee Ho Ho Mint Mochas and intimate friends? Let the natural anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac qualities set the mood for your holiday season.

Peppermint embodies unwavering dual functionality as a medicinal nostrum, and fits like an aesthetic glove to the holiday season. Finding and judging the best holiday flavor should more than a contest of what fits the mood of a season. If that’s the case, then nothing would stop rutabagas from slipping into your white mocha next holiday season.

-William Card

PICK A NEW HOLIDAY FLAVOR

It’s Christmastime in the city. The wind tunnels are freezing, the snow drifted along the sidewalks is lovely and packable, and when the Larimer Starbucks doors gust open to admit a shivering, under-caffeinated student, the outside world is treated to a gust of peppermint scent.

Peppermint. Bah humbug. It’s an overbearing, pompous flavor that overwhelms every food it touches. It floods the sinuses, makes the eyes water, and has an undying aftertaste that flavors one’s burps for weeks. It’s everywhere: mochas, frappuccinos, variations on coffees, teas, candies, breads, cookies, ice creams, cakes, milkshakes, syrups, yogurt, gum, chocolate, peppermint sticks, candy canes, essential oils, candles, chapstick, Febreze, and even insect repellent.

Peppermint’s overpowering taste crowds out the thousands of culture-specific culinary traditions of celebrating Christmas, and America’s obsession with it doesn’t acknowledge the spectacular, millenias-long tradition of Christmas-season food. Medieval Europe saw flaming puddings, foaming mead, roasted chestnuts, and saffron-painted pastries filled with live blackbirds on Christmas tables. Puddings, spiced apples, and roast meat were the flavors of colonial American Christmases. There’s an entire literature of Christmas food that barely mentions peppermint. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is packed with glowing descriptions of roast goose, brandy, and mouthwatering plum puddings.

Why peppermint? It’s pungent, sure, but it doesn’t communicate the warmth and golden, snowy joy of Christmas. Why not maple syrup, or caramel rum, or cinnamon, or spiced molasses? What about plums or walnuts or cherries? There are so many other good flavors that winter cuisine brings about. Think candied fruit, Narnian Turkish Delight, roaring fires, full-bodied ale, sweet hot chocolate, and a rich fruitcake.

Enjoy the peppermint taste, sure, but good grief—why does the enormity and specialness of Christmas need to be defined by a single flavor? Why does pumpkin have to rule fall, watermelon the summer, strawberries the spring, and peppermint the winter? Expand the horizons of your tastebuds, fight against the symbolic commodifying and industrialization of Christmas, and stop the peppermint addiction.

-Elsa Peterson

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