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Dancing with Sugarplums: Unraveling the History of a Holiday Treat

Nothing welcomes the festive holiday season more than images conjured up by Clement Moore’s c.1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, especially the line that reads, “the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.”

And of course, a Christmas music playlist is not complete without Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. Images of sugarplums conjured by these deep-rooted references embedded within the celebratory traditions of the festive season lead most people to make the logical assumption that sugarplums were exactly what they sound like they should be, sugar-coated plums; however, they are not. Now that the season of dancing sugarplums is upon us, an accurate history and definition of these enigmatic dreamy confections is warranted. 

History of the Sugarplum

The earliest mention of the term sugarplum dates to early 17th century Britain where it is found in Thomas Decker’s pamphlet, Lanthorne and Candlelight. Sugarplums were popular enough to transcend time and place because a much more local reference to them is found in the mid-19th century papers of Charles Benedict Calvert, founder of the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland at College Park) who lived just south of College Park at his property Riversdale in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Calvert, like most large landholders at that time, kept detailed account books documenting cash expenditures including two entries for sugarplums. The first entry is dated December 23, 1844 and notes his purchase “by cash for sugarplums for children” for $1.25.

Georg Flegel Still life with candy

Clearly sugar is needed to make sugarplums. A history of sugar reveals that sugar-based confections did not become popular in the Great Britain or America until the cost of sugar began to decline in the late 16th century, a result of the establishment of sugar-plantations worked by enslaved laborers. Once the cost of sugar was no longer an impediment to people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, it was no longer considered to be a luxury item just for the wealthy and became a common ingredient in recipes. As a result, cookery books began to be filled with a variety of recipes for sugar-laden baked goods, main courses, confections, and fruits preserved with sugar. However, in those days neither plums nor any other fruits preserved with sugar were actually referred to as sugarplums.

Until the mid 19th century, the term sugarplum usually referred to something completely different: small sugar-coated confections made with boiled sugar that came in a variety of colors and flavors. For example, confections known as comfits were often labeled as sugarplums. Comfits are seeds, spices, and nuts (Jordan almonds) coated in several layers of sugar and finished in a crisp sugar coating dyed in assorted colors or even coated with gold or silver leaf. Moreover, skilled confectioners knew how to alter comfit recipes to achieve a variety of textures yielding smooth pearled comfits or more coarsely finished ragged comfits. Comfit sugarplums were so popular that they often appear in historic works of art including Still Life with Candy (Flegel, German, 1566-1638) which depicts a bowl of them.

Why Plums?

Clearly, no plums are used in making these confections; so, why are they referred to as plums? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a plum is defined as “something superior or very desirable; especially something desirable given in return for a favor.” Similarly, the definition of a plum is often understood to be something particularly desirable, such as an advantageous prize, a sought-after job, or a coveted award.

Obviously, a lot of people thought that adding a coating of sugar to sugarless snacks made them exceedingly desirable. To add more confusion to the definition of plum, it altered over the course of the 19th century to also refer any dried fruit, especially dried raisins or currants. As a result, this led to the etymology of another holiday sweet treat, plum pudding. Plum pudding is a steamed bread pudding filled with assorted dried fruits such as raisins, dried peaches, cherries, pears, and other fruits, but only sometimes actual plums (called prunes when dried).

Dragees Jordan Almonds

Anything Goes!

While the history of this word may be confusing, it is clear that coating seeds, nuts or spices in a sugar shell would make them a desirable and superior treat. If you ever find yourself dreaming of sugarplums, now you know what to imagine in those dreams. To make those dreams a reality, try creating your very own gift bags of 21st century-era sugarplums: simply fill a bag with assorted multi-colored Jordan almonds, licorice candies such as Good & Plenty, sugar-coated fennel seeds (available in Indian markets), chocolate-covered nuts, yogurt-covered nuts, sugar-coated sunflower seeds, caramelized nuts, Boston Baked Beans candy, peanut M&Ms, and chocolate-covered raisins, just to name a few. Your gift recipient will find these to be a plum treat!

—Joyce M. White, Food Historian, Annapolis

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