A Compendium of Beliefs, Observations, and Considerations, Supplemented By Annotated Illustrations, Relating to the Nature of The Sugar Plum As Referenced In Popular 19th Century Christmas Poetry
What Is A Sugar Plum?1
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
. . .
The Sugar Plum Conundrum
Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision.
~ V. S. Naipaul
When it comes to visions of sugar-plums dancing in children’s heads, at least as memorialized in the poem (presumably) by Professor Moore’s poem, Mr. Naipaul need not fret about narrowness of vision. There is, indeed, a plethora of answers to the query, “What the heck is a sugar plum?”
Wikipedia directly addresses the issue,
A sugar plum is a piece of candy that is made of sugar and shaped in a small round or oval shape.
Sugar plums are widely associated with Christmas, through cultural phenomena such as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, as well as the line “Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” from “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
The only pertinent reference offered in that Wikipedia article, however, is Ward, Artimas. The Grocer’s Encyclopedia. New York: 1911, a source which defines sugar plum as “a term locally applied to various forms of candy, especially those of small size and oval and round shape.” This is fine and dandy as a definition but does little to identify that confection with A Visit from Saint Nicholas or even Christmas in general.
The Brand Names
The Food Facts and Trivia site asserts that “Those famous sugarplums which fill children’s dreams at Christmas were originally sugar coated coriander, a treat that offered a sweet start and then a spicy burst of flavor. Later the recipe included small bits of fruit and became the confection we know today,” but offers neither an illustration or reference.
Another site references a commercial offering from the Vermont Country Store, “a blend of sweet plum compote and rich dark chocolate, formed into a truffle-like chocolate-coated candy that will have you dancing all night long. Made by hand, 8 individually wrapped sugarplums come in an 8 oz. box.”
While these confections look delicious enough, the possibility that the motivation for the “sugar plum” appellation in this case has more to do with sales than Santa renders this authenticity of these sweets suspect.
There are, in fact, a large number of disparate candy products that have hitched their wagons to the sugar plum star.
For the record, I’m betting that the poet didn’t have the sugar plum soda as his model for dancing visions, but that would be a nifty product placement.
Recipes for sugar plums, albeit without illustrations in most instances, are easy enough to find. Jenny Yu, for example, posts a recipe for Sugar Plums from Saveur that calls for dates and apricots but not plums. The final step is rolling the concoction into balls, coating them with sugar, and, finally, refrigerating them. Readers Digest published a recipe for “this traditional Christmas sweet” with and ingredient list that includes figs but not plums. This recipe also produces balls that are refrigerated.
I would be remiss not to at least mention other recipes which include a sugar plum component. To streamline holiday culinary efforts, for example, one can combine two traditional dishes to produce Sugar Plum Mince Pie.
How about some Meatballs with Sugar Plum Dip or perhaps a couple of servings of Spiced Sugarplum and Caramelized Apple Tartlets with Calvados Cream?
And who could resist a couple of Sugar Plum Pops?
Those unmoved by the sugar plum pops might find their Christmas cheer more susceptible to enhancement by the imbibition of a Sugar Plum Martini or, if one is feeling particularly sprite-ish, a Sugar Plum Fairy-tini.
What Did They Grow and Eat at Locust Grove focuses on cooking in era in which A Visit from Saint Nicholas was written and provides a number of recipes used in the early 1800s for such dishes as Apple Tansy, Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream, and Martha Washington’s Great Cake (the modernized version of which begins “Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth.”).
That web site also offers modern recipes for Simple Sugar Plums, More Complicated Sugar Plums, Cranberry Sugar Plums, Tipsy Sugar Plums, Spiced Sugar Plums, Sweet Sugar Plums, and Brandied Sugar Plums (pictured at right).
The writer at Brownie Points reports on a Sugar Plum she found at the Eugene City Bakery, thoughtfully including a photo:
It’s tart and tangy with a flavor very reminiscent of cherries. Very refreshing in a season of deep chocolate flavors and sparky mints.
My Sugar Plum looks like a fruit version of a rum ball: a hand formed ball comprised of minced fruit, maybe bits of orange peel, and specks of walnuts… a sticky mass that’s coated in sparkly sugar to make it less eventful on my fingers.
Sugar Plum Fairies Dance Too
Many but not all sites maintain that the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy in his 1892 ballet, The Nutcracker, was sweet plums with a glistening sugar coating, said to be a common treat in his era. Dissenting sites most often describe his referenced sugar plum as a small, ovoid candy made from sugar.
The Long Shots
One shouldn’t forget that there is a Sugar Plum that is – well, a plum, notable for being the only plum with a non-bitter skin.
And an attractive flower has been designated the Sugar Plum.
Neither the Sugar Plum plum or the Sugar Plum flower appears to be the botanical specimen Eugene Field describes in his poem, The Sugar-Plum Tree, an excerpt of which follows:
It blooms on the shore of the Lollypop Sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
Mr. Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy has generated innumerable spin-offs, including the Sugar-Plum Fairy Wedding Dress.
And these … let’s call them “dancers.”
The most convincing historical takes on sugar plums come from two altogether impressive sites:
(1) The Historical Cookery Page by Sharon Cohen, which introduces its content, the “detailed instructions for preparing sugarplums, the quintessential Christmas sweet” – based on 16th century techniques – with this paragraph:
The dictionary defines a sugarplum as a small round or oval piece of sugary candy. English being the flexible language it is, the name could have come from the resemblance to a small plum. Or it could have come from actual plums preserved in sugar, a relatively new idea in 16th Century England. Prior to this time sugar was so expensive that it was used very sparingly, much as we would use a spice today. In the 1540’s, however, sugar started being refined in London which lowered the price considerably, although only well-off families were able to use it lavishly. Preserving with sugar allowed the sweet fruits of summer to be enjoyed all year round, especially during the holiday season,
and (2) Food Timeline – Christmas foods, which explains
Sugarplums belong to the comfit family, a confection traditionally composed of tiny sugar-coated seeds. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word sugarplum thusly: “A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugared and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit.” The earliest mention of this particular food is 1668. … According to the food historians, the word plum in Victorian times referred to raisins or dried currants, not plums as we Americans think of them today. …
“Sugarplums were an early form of boiled sweet. Not actually made from plums…they were nevertheless roughly the size and shape of plums, and often had little wire stalks’ for suspending them from. They came in an assortment of colours and flavours, and frequently, like comfits, had an aniseed, caraway seed, etc. at their centre. The term was in vogue from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries … .”
—An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 329)
Which leads to the question, what are comfits?
“Comfit, an archaic English word for an item of confectionery consisting of a seed, or nut coated in several layers of sugar…In England these small, hard sugar sweets were often made with caraway seeds, known for sweetening the breath (hence kissing confits). Up to a dozen coats of syrup were needed before the seeds were satisfactorily encrusted. Comfits were eaten a sweets, and also used in other sweet dishes; for example seed cake was made with caraway comfits rather than loose caraway seeds as in the 19th century. Confectioners as early as the 17th century recognized by varying the proportions of sugar in the syrup they could change the final texture, making pearled comfits or crisp and ragged comfits. The word comfit remained in use in English up until the 20th century: Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, has a box of comfits in her pocket.”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 208)
So, the author of the line “visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads” probably had in mind sugar-plums that looked like this:
Historic Food has a well illustrated explanation of the process of comfit production as it was accomplished during and prior to the early 1800s. That site also notes that the etching by Christoph Weigel (From One Hundred Fools, c.1700) pictured below depicts “a confectionery booth with a rich display of comfits, sweetmeats, biscuits and jumbals … [and a] little boy with his conical bag of sugar plums.”
The Pertinent Christmas Literature
My personal conclusion (and one of the primary perks of being a blogger is manifested in the succinct principle, My Blog, My Conclusion) is that, thank goodness, the science of candy-making has progressed considerably since the early 1800s.
The official Heck of a Guy position is that, in 2007, anyone envisioning sugar plums is no more obligated to use the same sweets that Moore had in mind than a contemporary symphony is obligated to use period instruments and practices to perform works by classical masters such as Bach.
- “Sugar Plum” is also written as “Sugarplum” and “Sugar-Plum” [↩]
- Also commonly known as Twas The Night Before Christmas and The Night Before Christmas [↩]
- The poem’s authorship has been disputed with the alternative author proposed as Henry Livingston Jr., See Wikipedia for further explanation and references [↩]
- I just realized that no one seems to have addressed the question of what style dance was performed by those sugar-plums or, if as Lady Lawanda maintains, it is was the vision itself that “danced in their heads.” But that’s a post for another Christmas season [↩]