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“What’s a sugar plum, and why does it get its own fairy?”

Vintage candy label shows santa clause in a green sled being pulled by one reindeer.

Label for Santa Claus Sugar Plums from the U.S. Confection Company, 1868. (Public Domain)

The holidays have finally struck here at Caterpickles Central. I wasn’t entirely sure it was going to happen this year, seeing as how there are still flowers blooming outside our front door, but I chaperoned The Ten-Year-Old’s field trip to see The Nutcracker last week, and now I’ve got questions about sugar plums dancing in my head.

What is a sugar plum, anyway?

I have it from a reliable source (my daughter’s fifth grade teacher) that a sugar plum is not simply a sugared plum. In fact, the traditional confectionary known as a sugar plum didn’t contain any actual plum at all. The name plum comes from their shape, not their contents.

Although modern recipes call for sugar plums to be made of dried fruit, traditionally, sugar plums were simply little nuts, seeds, or spices covered in a hard sugar coating. The result was a candy very similar to today’s Jordan Almonds.

Sugar plums were the TUMS of their time

In a shocking twist, sugar plums, also known as comfits, started life as a medicine to treat indigestion. Invented by Arab apothecaries, comfits made their way to Europe by way of Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. They were especially popular in Tudor England, where they, along with a glass of spiced wine, were the digestive aid of choice for Henry VIII after one of his gut-busting feasts.

Why do sugar plums have their own fairy in The Nutcracker?

If sugar plums were originally medicine, why did they get their own fairy in The Nutcracker? I mean, it’s hard to imagine the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographing a production to celebrate the digestive comfort of a well-timed dose of Pepcid Complete.

One answer might be that sugar plums are a particularly tasty form of medicine. They are much more like candy than medicine, really. A particularly difficult to make and therefore expensive candy that only aristocrats could afford to have on a regular basis.

Although the ingredient mix is simple — a bit of caraway, coriander, or chopped almond at the center of a hardened sugar coating — sugar plums are made using one of confectionary’s most tedious processes — panning.  In panning, the seed, spice, or nut at the heart of the sugar plum is placed on a pan over heat. The confectioner keeps the pan constantly in motion while she slowly pours sugar syrup over the centers, allowing the layers to harden between pours. Creating a nice thick sugar coating requires 30 coats of sugar. Completing a batch of properly coated sugar plums could take hours, or even days.

Today, machines do most of the work for us, which is why one Jordan Almond looks much like another, and we can afford to eat as many of them as we wish. But in 1609 when Sir Hugh Pratt published his recipe for sugar plums in “the arte of comfetmaking”, panning by hand was exceptionally tedious, and that drove up the price of sugar plums into luxury territory.

As a result, aristocrats might have snacked on sugar plums after meals, but the average European child would have enjoyed their sugary goodness only on special occasions — like, say, a family’s Christmas Eve celebration, such as the one described in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Having a dancing fairy dispense sugar plums in a time of relative sugar plum scarcity would have seemed magical indeed.

There could be other reasons, though. By the time Tchaikovsky composed his ballet, the word plum had come to mean anything delightful or desirable. That alone could have been good enough to justify the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

There could also have been something in Tchaikovsky’s source material that mandated the sugar plum fairy. Tchaikovsky based The Nutcracker on a story by Alexandre Dumas, which in turn was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s rather grim 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King.” I haven’t read either Dumas’ story or Hoffman’s original tale, so I can’t say for certain yet.

Because of that, I’m not ready to declare this half of the question solved. But the holidays are looming and The Ten-Year-Old is clamoring to give Alton Brown’s lovely modernized recipe for sugar plums a try.

Knowing the final answer is going to have to wait.

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