In the fast-paced age of the Internet, video games and cellular phones, a 120-year-old Saratoga County holiday tradition is geared at getting people to just talk to each other.
Traditionally, the Peppermint Pig — a pink chunk of hard-rock candy in the shape of a pig — is passed around after the holiday dinner, with each loved one taking a whack at it with a small hammer, and then sharing something good that happened to them over the past year.
Rather than get up from the table and go play with an Xbox or something like that, everyone lingers a little longer and talks about good things, said Saratoga Sweets proprietor Mike Fitzgerald, who brought back the Peppermint Pig in 1988 after a nearly 50-year hiatus. `It provides a certain amount of closure to the holiday season, but a nice, family closure.`
The history of the Peppermint Pig in Saratoga County is a puzzle, Fitzgerald said. When candy shops were a thriving neighborhood businesses, all the old candy makers used to make Peppermint Pigs. But as near as Fitzgerald can tell, the idea’s originator was a Saratoga candy maker named Jim Mingay ` who died 30 years to the day before Fitzgerald was born.
`Everyone said ‘Oh, my God, the reincarnation of the pig man.’ I would be honored to be that,` Fitzgerald said.
As time went by, one by one, the old candy makers in Saratoga County retired or died, and during World War II the government rationed sugar, making candy making all the more difficult. Sometime along the line, nobody is sure exactly when, Peppermint Pigs were no longer being made.
That changed in 1988 when the Saratoga County Historical Society approached Fitzgerald, who left the restaurant business to try his hand at candy, to see if he would be interested.
He took out a small advertisement in the paper telling folks the Peppermint Pig would again be available at his candy shop on Caroline Street Christmas Eve morning, 1988. When he came to work, he said there was a mob of people waiting for the store to open. The 60 pink pigs he made were not nearly enough to meet the demand that day, but the Peppermint Pig was again part of the holiday tradition for thousands of families, many of whom introduced the pig to the younger generation.
`One of my favorite quotes from that day is from an elderly gentleman who brought his grandson with him. He said, ‘When I got my first pig I was the little hand holding the big hand. Now I am the big hand holding the little hand,’` Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald is a stickler for tradition. He will make 130,000 pigs this year, but rather than mass-produce, he cooks the mix in teakettles that yield just five pigs each. If they are cooked in anything larger, the pigs, known among candy makers as candy glass, would not break right, he said. And rather than use an extract or flavorings, he, in the tradition of the candy makers a century ago, who did not have the luxury of extracts, uses pure peppermint oil — though it does not help the bottom line. Seven gallons of peppermint extract cost between $70 and $80. The same amount of peppermint oil, harvested exclusively for his business, costs about $750, he said.
`Ninety-nine percent of the people would not know the difference, but if I used an extract some of the old timers would come down here and swat me with something,` he said with a chuckle. `Because of them, and out of respect for my predecessors, we use oil.`
So why a pig rather than a horse, the animal Saratoga is most famous for?
A pig, he said, is a sign of prosperity. Most farm animals have a use — the horse pulls the plow and the cow gives milk — but the pig just hangs out and eats. By passing on a pig, you are wishing someone enough success to have a freeloader on the farm.
`That and short, little legs are easier to make than long, skinny legs,` he added.
He said the Peppermint Pig is one of the oldest U.S. holiday traditions, since most of our holiday symbols hail from Europe. Saratoga Sweets is the only spot on the planet that makes Peppermint Pigs, and the same wired world it works to keep at bay is utilized to ship the pigs across the nation. But the store is still packed around this time of year.
`I got mine yesterday,` said customer Jane Martin who pulled up to the shop on Route 9 as it was closing. `We get one every year. It is a great story and a big part of our Christmas holiday tradition for so many years.`
`We had one every year as I was growing up and there are so many happy memories,` said Saratoga Sweets General Manager Dona Cuva. `And now my two boys still love to take a ‘whack at the pig,’ and we will do it again this year. `I think my dad was more excited when I started cooking pigs here than he was when I got my first teaching job.`
Fitzgerald said he has a lot of fun with his business, offering free samples of candy at his shop that features a chocolate fountain customers can dip complimentary treats like strawberries and marshmallows into. However, he takes the Peppermint Pig tradition he revived, and is now steward too, seriously. And he is particularly loyal to his Saratoga County customers.
`On Christmas Eve, after I lock up and go shopping, I always leave a few pigs in the box outside just in case someone did not get one,` he said. `After we break our pig, I like to think if you open the door and listen hard enough, you can hear pigs breaking all across the neighborhood.
`My hats off to the guys who came up with the notion some 120 years ago and I am honored to be able to bring it back.`