Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sugar Plums

The precise meaning of “sugar plums” has reared its ugly head. Alas, even in this season of joy and spiritual renewal, the golden…uh…sugar plum of discord has been cast down.

One of Prism’s designers, Stacy Allen, finished some concepts that called for sugar plums. I saw these and said (out loud, unfortunately), “Those look more like candies than sugar plums. I always thought that sugar plums were literally plums and other fruits coated in crystallized sugar.”

“This is what sugar plums are,” she replied. “I looked up the term, and the dictionary definition is about hard candies.”

I backed out of the conversation, with all the grace of an elephant in a Wal-Mart aisle. But I thought, this can’t be right…or rather, I can’t have been wrong all these years, surely! From my very childhood, I knew the Clement Clarke Moore poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” wherein:

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”

Moore wrote this poem in 1822, and although I’d once thought it was British, I discovered years ago it’s as American as your Aunt Sally’s johnnycakes. Nevertheless, I have always considered sugar plums an English confection, and a real fruit-based nosh.

Wrong, wrong, wrong – on a number of counts. (And Stacy is right.) Disdaining the ordinary dictionaries, I cannoned up immediately: The Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 10, page 118. The very first definition is “A small, round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a confit.” In other words, a hard candy. The first cite is from 1668, for the Lord’s sake! In the same listing, naturally, there’s the obligatory warning, circa 1859 from a country parson: “Sugar-plums…damage the teeth.”

Determined to pursue this controversy to its bitter (and for me, redemptive) end, I called my English experts, Bob and Edith Fusillo in Atlanta. When I popped the question, they were blank – but Edith felt as though she’d heard that it was some kind of candied fruit (Aha!, I thought).

Bob pointed me to the Vermont Country Store, where I discovered another story: “Visions of those darned sugarplums kept us up the whole night before Christmas year after year-wondering what the heck sugarplums were and why on earth they were dancing. Now we know: 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.” Bob also sent me a recipe for a similar goodie.

And here at the Candy Warehouse, you can get something completely different: a plum-flavored, plum-shaped jell candy in a 10-pound case! Go crazy.

So having shaken the (admittedly weak) foundations of my world, I realize that there’s no single definition of what a sugar plum is – but most people will go the hard candy route. Next, they’ll be saying there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Ha! Merry Christmas.

NOTE: “Mutts” cartoon © 2005 Patrick McDonnell. See Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.


Susan said...

I knew you would have to look it up

Susan Kirkland said...

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Every year, to save my English friend from buying one of those dreadful Christmas Puddings in a box, I make her an authentic English pudding for her Christmas dinner, which I surround with handmade SUGARPLUMS. I use a recipe from the Dorchester Hotel for the pudding. But here is my recipe for authentic sugar plums, God forbid someone who edits a dictionary should know much about foods of the English Middle Class.

[b]Sugar Plums[/b]
1/4 cup finely ground walnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots
2 Tablespoons golden raisens, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons shredded coconut, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons pitted dates (I prefer dried cherries)
finely chopped
1 Tablespoon Napoleon Brandy
1/4 cup sugar (to roll in after the first 6 ingredients are

Depending on the moistness of the dried fruit, I sometimes add 1 Tablespoon of corn syrup to aid in holding the balls together. Put them in small cupcake/candy papers.

Hard candy, indeed. Ask Jeeves about what Jeeves knows; not about cooking.