So, I went Two Buttons Deep with the Albany Yelp Crew last night and had a grand ol’ time in Schenectady for the premiere of The Humans at Proctors, a “tragicomedy thriller,” sandwiched between margaritas at Mexican Radio and a nightcap and sweet treat at Apertivo. A little tequila before the theater never hurt nobody.
To provide some background, The Humans is a 90 minute, one-act play written by Stephen Karam that opened on Broadway in 2016 after a successful run Off-Broadway the previous year. It was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, so yeah, it’s a pretty darn good show.
In a nutshell, Thanksgiving Dinner unfolds in a run-down Chinatown apartment in NYC with the Blake family when a set of parents (Erik and Deirdre) and a granny with dementia make the trip from Scranton, PA, to spend the holiday with their city-living daughters (Brigid and Aimee) and one quasi-son-in-law (Richard), at Brigid and Richard’s place. As if a family’s fraught trajectory were not tinder enough, Thanksgiving always provides a dramatic firecracker of a setting.
While the play wasn’t exactly the “thriller,” I was expecting (note to self, next time Google “tragicomedy thriller”), it was definitely a mysterious yet relatable human story, and if you want a more official one-sentence synopsis, the Pulitzer Prize committee called the play “a profoundly affecting drama that sketches the psychological and emotional contours of an average American family.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, but this post isn’t a review or an analysis. The ensemble was tighter than crazy glue, and I felt that the set, a dingy, eerie Chinatown ramshackle of a duplex was a character all its own; however, instead, I really want to take a moment and give a shout out to a sweet swine and candy shop that keeps a local holiday tradition alive.
Sure, the play might have been about a dysfunctional Thanksgiving family dinner, but for me, the Peppermint Pig™ stole the show. That’s right, Saratoga’s very own Peppermint Pig, complete with the appropriate prop accoutrements including a red velvet bag and miniature nickel-plated hammer, made its Broadway debut on a local stage last night, and I’m here for it.
In case you don’t know, the Peppermint Pig, a local hard-candy confection, is a holiday ritual meant to be broken, then eaten and passed around. Per tradition, after Christmas dinner, the head of a household would place a Peppermint Pig in a velveteen bag and break it with a small hammer. As the candy pig was passed around the dinner table, each person used the hammer to break a piece off, and then shared a bit of good fortune from the year just passed, with hopes of good luck and prosperity of the new year ahead. In turn, it has become an unusual holiday tradition around the world, trimming holiday meals with its interactive approach to this day – mine included. Oh yeah, I’ve been known to hit the hog many times, and hands down, this activity belongs on your holiday dessert menu, too.
The Christmas tradition of the Peppermint Pig originated in the 1880s when Saratoga Springs was a thriving resort town with two of the world’s largest hotels and several lively casinos, but it’s almost like it was created by accident. European chefs who came to work at the hotels couldn’t make the confections they made back home, but Jim Mangay, a candy maker in Saratoga, tinkered and improvised, first casting these sweet pigs from hardened peppermint using oil from his father’s apothecary.
When the casinos closed years later, and Saratoga’s popularity slightly waned, the pigs were no more, drifting into obscurity due to sugar rationing during World War II.
40 years later, Mike Fitzgerald of Saratoga Sweets comes to the rescue, reviving the little piggies of yesteryear. In 1988, at the request of the local historical society, Fitzgerald made a first run of 60 peppermint pigs at his candy shop. He was surprised to see people lining up to buy them, many from an older generation who fondly recalled smashing pigs when they were young. He sold out his run and never looked back.
The candy is essentially made the same way it was a century ago, with the identical ingredients and copies of the original molds. Batches are boiled up in small quantities, using tea kettles — five pigs to a kettle — to ensure quality control. After cooking, the pink liquid is poured into aluminum alloy molds and left to cool. Each pig takes about 90 minutes to make.
Why a pig, though? Wouldn’t a reindeer be better? Turns out that in Victorian times, the pig symbolized good health, happiness, and prosperity. Sounds like a plan.
These days, “pig season” — a time that stretches from late summer until the chief candy maker is the last one out the door on Christmas Eve, the crew really pigs out, pouring the pink pigs from dawn to dusk fulfilling orders of up to / more than 130,000 in recent years.
You can order them online, send directly to friends and family, or pick your pigs up in person at the candy shop, now dubbed Saratoga Candy Co. because of a 2015 merge with longtime Saratoga staple The Candy Co., with an established location at 5 Washington Street in downtown Saratoga. Right around the corner from Starbucks, it’s the perfect pitstop for a sweet treat. (They have all sorts of goodies, but their fudge is heavenly – I try to get some of the maple flavor every time I’m up there!)
So while Saratoga Springs might historically be a horse town, for a few weeks a year three little peppermint pigs really ham it up: there’s Holly (small), Noel (medium), or the big man, Clarence (large). If that’s not a gang you want to join, then maybe you should shovel some pony plop and think about taking a cue from the theater and the Blake Family, and getting on board the Peppermint Pig™ train!
Audiences around the country will see this enchanting performance of The Humans until its last curtain call in December 2018; however, I bet none of the them will squeal with delight at the mention of The Peppermint Pig as much as a few of my fellow Yelpers and I did.
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