Sugar plums: from seeded sugar to sweetness itself
There’s something pleasantly vague about the name “sugar plum” to the modern ear. When we hear about these treats in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, or The Nutcracker, they sound much better than modern terms that would be more descriptive, but sound a lot less magical. Children aren’t going to get excited about “visions of digestive aids,” and the “Dance of the Gobstopper Fairy” doesn’t sound terribly whimsical either.
Sugar to suck on
Sugar plums, or comfits as they were more commonly called in their heyday, are actually a very old candy that likely originated in the Middle East. They was some variety in their recipes, but the core concept involved a lot of sugar being coated around a seed or nut. Sometimes the seed could be substantial, like an almond, but they were often something tiny like a celery seed, basically acting like an anchor for sugar to start collecting around. Once an appropriate seed or speck was selected, it was then repeatedly covered in layers of sugar or syrup. The comfits would be heated, coated, and then cooled over and over again, with the entire process taking days to complete. Flavors or colors could be added, but basically you ended up with lumpy sticks of sugar, or smoother balls of dried syrup to suck on, not terribly unlike a gobstopper.
Of course, the labor involved in cooking comfits meant that these candies were not doled out carelessly. They were originally treated like an after-dinner digestive aid, meant to accompany some spiced wine, preventing indigestion and reducing flatulence. Since ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas puts sugar plums in children’s dreams in the 1823, it’s clear that these candies eventually moved beyond the formal banquet table to a place where kids could enjoy them for the balls of sugar they were. Technological advances in the 1860s, like steam and mechanized pans, made comfit production significantly cheaper and more accessible to the general public.
From candy to culture
By the time The Nutcracker premiered in 1892, sugar plums would have been widely known as a sugary treat, even transcending their origin as literal candies. From the 17th century onward, ‘sugar plums’ could be anything sweet and lovely, or even sweet and slightly devious if someone had a “mouth full of sugar plums.” These meanings were even shortened to just “plum” sometimes, removing the last traces of any descriptive words that would help a modern reader understand what was going on. Not that that’s stopping us from enjoying our own visions of sugar plums, as disconnected as they may be.
Source: Sugar-Plums and Comfits, Historic Food