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Ginger, Candy Canes & Navel Oranges: History Of Three Christmas Foods

Brent Hofacker
Candy canes haven't always had their iconic red stripes.

Holidays of all kinds usually involve eating. There are special foods, recipes or flavors that we associate with them. Think hot dogs on the 4th of July or turkey and cranberries on Thanksgiving.

Christmas has as many food traditions as there are cultures that celebrate it. Food historian and Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek chose to highlight ginger, candy canes and navel oranges.

Ginger was first cultivated in Indonesia centuries ago and made its way to India, then Europe, and then the Americas as the trade routes opened up. It's used in both savory and sweet dishes and finds its Christmas splendor in gingerbread, whether in cookie, bread, or house form.

Peppermint, the flavoring in candy canes, was also used for centuries both in food and as medicine. Though, the candy cane is a much newer invention.

Cherek says they started in the mid-19th century as simple, straight sugar sticks, sometimes with the addition of peppermint. They were often given to children as a holiday gift. It was later that the red stripe and the crook at the top were added. Some people think that's because the candy cane was being co-opted by churches as a religious symbol of the season. Nope, Cherek says.

"Folks that love religious iconography started to say, 'Oh, it’s the shepherd’s hook for Jesus and the red is the blood of Christ …' No. Sorry. They were just sugar sticks and someone came up with a way to bend them so they were more memorable," Cherek explains.

As for the navel orange, that almost didn't happen at all. Thanks to a combination of determination and tenacity on the part of one woman in Riverside, Calif., the delicious fruit is now a citrus shining star. Even though it's an odd star.

"The navel orange that we all take for granted now was in fact just a genetic mutation that was on one single branch in an orchard in Brazil. That navel is in fact another orange trying to grow out of the original orange," says Cherek.

So, navel oranges are kind of like the alien coming out of that guy's chest in the film? Well, kind of, but a whole lot tastier.

We wish you and yours a very delicious Christmas.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.