Sugar Plums – A Sweetness From Long Ago
Before we go any further, I’m here to say that sugar plums do not have any connection to actual plums; sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but facts are facts. They do however have copious amounts of sugar in them, so that should help to soften the blow. These sweet treats have an interesting history and even more interesting preparation method, which dates back to the 1600’s. Today, we’d call them candy, but that wasn’t always the case; in their infancy, the sugary concoctions were very expensive and not a regular treat. However as the world progressed into the age of mechanization, new equipment made them cheaper and ultimately they were more accessible by everyday citizens. They were called plums because of their small round shape, which at the time, resembled a petite plum.
The original confection was a hardened sugar ball, which had a nut, seed, or pocket of spice in the center, much like a chocolate covered cherry. At the time, sweets of this type were known as comfits, which interestingly enough are still thought to be one of the world’s oldest types of sugar candies. What made confits unique was how they were made. The process was known as panning or sugar panning and involved a worker adding liquid sugar to the candy, which was centered in a spinning hot pan. By using a special funnel, which was called a pearling funnel or cot, a small amount of sugar could be added to coat the pieces again and again. It was very labor intensive and thus very expensive. The individual candies were covered with up to thirty layers of coating until the desired shape and size was achieved. This process often took several days to complete. Because only the very wealthy could afford them in the beginning, the word plum became associated with great wealth and morphed into a slang word for loads of money or wealth.
Early comfit makers were highly skilled and it took years of practice to make consistent pieces free from lumps or imperfections. Competing confectioners would guard their methods and makers in the same way modern companies protect trade secrets. There are only one or two surviving written accounts of the recipes and methods used in the 1600’s. Historians still consider comfit making to be one of the most difficult and time consuming practices in craft candy-making. If it wasn’t for their association to Christmas, they may have been lost to history like so many other unique things.
Connection to Christmas
Sugar plums became connected to Christmas a long, long time ago though several channels. The most known are the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker Ballet and the famous line of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” where visions of sugar plums danced in the children’s heads. As a sidebar, the real name for the Night Before Christmas poem (written by Clement C. Moore) is “A Visit from St. Nicholas. Also, a lesser-known references found in popular culture are found in the board game called Candy Land, where the a gingerbread troll named Plumpy wore a sugar plum around his neck. Any player who drew the Plumpy card would basically be forced to start again. At this point, many of you are certainly scratching your heads trying to identify the Plumpy card from the game, but I implore you to stop. The game manufacturer replaced Plumpy with Mama Gingertree in 2002.
So, the next time you are about to pop something sweet in your mouth, think back about how candy evolved, and why it was really considered a treat due to the time it took to make.
© 2018 Ralph Schwartz