According to Clement Clark Moore, sugar-plums are so special that of all the possible delights a child might dream of, they top the list.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…
So what exactly are these “sugar-plums” dancing in dreamland? At first glance the “sugar” and “plum” seem obvious. Sweetened fruit, right?
Well…. in a word, NO. The actual fruit plum had zero to do with it. Don’t beat yourself up if you thought otherwise because few these days know what a sugar-plum was! The Oxford English Dictionary declares the term obsolete. English-speakers from the 17th to the 19th century knew sugar-plum as another name for what was sometimes called dragee or more commonly comfit.
Comfit (n.) – early 14c., “sugarplum,” from Old French confit “preserved fruit,” from Latin confectum, from confectionem (or confection).
All of these terms name a sweet made of sugar syrup hardened around a central seed or kernel in successive layers using a process called “panning” which is similar to how shelled candies like M&Ms, jawbreakers, and jelly beans are made. The candy pan is kept in motion over heat while successive layers of sugar are poured on and allowed to harden. Sugar-plums or comfits were most often made with caraway, fennel, coriander, or cardamom seeds at the center. Almonds were another classic base for sugar-plum — the candy then more like a modern-day Jordan almond — as well as walnuts, aniseed, and even teeny celery seeds. Strips of cinnamon bark, citrus peel, and ginger root were popular choices too.
In the centuries before mechanization, the process was one of the most time-consuming, labor intensive, and costly confectionary crafts. Specialized equipment called a “pearling funnel” or “cot” were needed to add the sugar, and the repeated “panning” to coat the hard center took hours up to days depending on the layers required for the size desired. Colored coatings were popular and created by staining the final layers of syrup with an edible pigment. Sanders, mulberry juice, and cochineal were used for red, indigo stone for blue, the juice of spinach for green, and saffron or gum gambodge for yellow. Only those with extreme skill could create a quality sugar-plum. Because of this, sugar-plums were a luxury snack for wealthy, aristocratic consumers.
Due to the unique nature of sugar-plums, the term came to have a special meaning. By the 1600s the phrase “a mouth full of sugar plums” meant a person spoke sweetly. However, in a strange twist, the phrase might also mean the person had a deceitful agenda — if their mouth was stuffed with sugar-plums as a bribe. “Plum” evolved into British slang for 100 pounds, or simply a huge pile of money, and a rich man was often referred to as a plum, hence the correlation between money and a highly priced confection. In time “plum” became a term for an especially desirable or precious thing, as we still see to this day.
By the 1860s candy makers were using steam heat and mechanized rotating pans so sugar-plums could be manufactured and purchased at a much lower price, and were given brand names rather than the broader term, hence its disappearance from modern English.
An example of the status of sugar-plums and the term “plum” itself is seen in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. In the Land of the Sweets in Act II, of all the various candy players, it is the Sugar Plum Fairy who rules the kingdom in the absence of the Prince. Written in 1892 when the candy was more easily attainable and popular, the universal concept was of sugar-plums as symbolic for all that was sweet, delectable, and lovely.
For Regency era folks with a sweet-tooth and scads of extra cash lying around, sugar-plums were a popular choice. Not, however, associated specifically with Christmas. We have Mr. Moore and his poem to thank for that!
So, getting back to Moore and those dreams of dancing sugar-plums, it is not known precisely what he meant by the phrase. Written in 1823, Moore could have meant the literal candy. He could just as easily been referring to the general delights and desirable gifts of Christmas. Most commentators lean toward the candy interpretation but unless a hitherto undiscovered document written by Moore surfaces, the mystery shall remain unsolved.
If you search Google for recipes for sugar-plums you will find dozens. None of them, however, are for the original candy. Not that they don’t look delicious! Modern “sugar plums” are an entirely different treat, the base typically a fruit… such as a plum!
Sugar Plums: They’re Not What You Think They Are by Samira Kawash
What are Sugar Plums Anyway? by Rebecca Rupp