Nowadays we’re all familiar with Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”—a.k.a. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was supposedly written on an actual snowy night before Christmas, while Moore was traveling through Greenwich Village by sleigh, and first published (anonymously) in 1823.
From it, we’ve gleaned a lasting picture of Santa Claus (nose like a cherry, white beard, round belly), developed maddening memory glitches over the names of those eight tiny reindeer, and puzzled over the children tucked in their beds, having visions of sugar plums. Most of us, it turns out, are pretty vague about those sugar plums.
What they’re not, annoyingly enough, is sugar-coated plums.
According to candy historians and the Oxford English Dictionary, a sugar plum is a comfit—that is, a seed, nut, or scrap of spice coated with a layer of hard sugar, like the crunchy outer case of an M&M. In the 17th century, popular innards for comfits included caraway, fennel, coriander, and cardamom seeds, almonds, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, and aniseed. Tiny comfits—“hundreds and thousands,” “shot comfits,” or nonpareils”—were made by sugar-coating minuscule celery seeds; “long comfits” were sugar-coated strips of cinnamon bark or citrus peel.
Comfits are thought to be one of the world’s oldest sugar candies. They most likely started life as medicine, devised by Arab apothecaries as treatments for indigestion, and were brought to Europe via Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. The Tudors ate them as stomach-settlers at the end of their sizeable meals, along with a glass of spiced wine.
Comfits were tricky to make. The sugar coatings had to be gradually built up over time, first adding sugar syrup with a special funnel (called a “pearling funnel” or “cot”), then shimmying the candies in a hot pan. This process-called “panning”—had to be repeated for hours or days on end, until up to 30 layers of sugar had been added to the mix. Comfits, since they were massively labor-intensive, were pricey. Sugar plums were originally snacks for aristocrats.
Early comfits also tended to be lumpy. The perfect comfit was the work of a skilled, patient, and possibly lucky confectioner. The process was so difficult that trade secrets were strictly guarded. A rare survival are the instructions published by Sir Hugh Platt (1609) on “The arte of comfetmaking,” who spills the beans on techniques and recipes. (“A quarter of a pound of Coriander seeds, and three pounds of sugar will make great, huge and big comfets.”) Today panning is performed mechanically, which is how we get uniformly round jawbreakers and smoothly oval jellybeans and Jordan almonds.
“Sugar plum,” these days, is an obsolete word, which seems a shame considering its versatility in its 17th- to 19th-century heyday. In the 17th century, to have a “mouth full of sugar plums” meant that you spoke sweetly, but might have a deceitful hidden agenda; in the 18th century, “to sugar plum” was a verb, meaning to pet, fawn over, or make up to. In the 19th century, “plum,” all on its own, came to mean anything delightful and desirable—hence Tchaikovsky’s Sugarplum Fairy in the Nutcracker ballet. (Read related: “Why Fancy Nutcrackers Don’t Actually Crack Nuts”)
And Moore’s sleeping children, dreaming of sugar plums? Chances are that dancing in their heads were oval or spherical hard-sugar sweets, bought from shops in paper cones, and colored red with mulberry juice or cochineal, blue with indigo, green with spinach, and yellow with saffron.
- Kawash, Samira. “Sugar Plums: They’re Not What You Think They Are.” The Atlantic, December 2010.
- Mason, Laura. Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: A Prehistory of Sweets. Prospect Books, 2003.
- Richardson, Tim. Sweets: A History of Candy. Bloomsbury, 2002.