Will the REAL sugarplum please do a pirouette?
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 11, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas.)
First things first: are they sugar plums, sugar-plums or sugarplums? Since I am not talking about fresh fruit here, I will call them, whatever they are, "sugarplums," to distinguish them from the fresh fruit, although authors, editors and type-setters have used all three names. And wherever you see a photo of a lovely plant in this article, it, too, is called 'Sugarplum;' mouse-over the pictures for more details.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas," commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," was first published in upstate New York in 1823 and features sugarplums dancing in the heads of sleeping children. This poem, usually attributed to Clement Moore, achieved enormous popularity in the United States (as evidenced by the high number of parodies, even on this very web site—see 'Twas the Night Before Sowing). It was responsible for many of the current conventions about Santa Claus at least in the United States—the flying reindeer, their precise number and names, Santa's physique, his method of entry into the house, even the stockings hung by the chimney with care—but few people have caught on to the sugarplums (nor to the idea of sleeping in a hat)! What was the poet thinking of? Candy, toys, sure, I dreamed of those and so did my kids, but not candied plums. Illustrations of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" do not show the sleeping children with anything other than a bed until the 1906 edition. (See picture to the left.)
And what was on Tchaikovsky's mind when he created the character of the "Sugarplum Fairy," the queen of sweets, in his ballet The Nutcracker, in 1892? This was the almost certainly the first time the words "sugarplum" and "fairy" had been used together in history, hard as it is to imagine! One thing is for certain, since all the other dream characters represent exotic treats to Russians of the late 19th century, like coffee, ginger, tea or bon-bons, Tchaikovsky was thinking of something extra-special and exotic. You can listen to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy by clicking here.
The "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem from upstate New York had likely not spread to Russian-speaking Tchaikovsky in Tsarist Russia. The ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892 (just before Tchaikovsky's death in 1893), in Budapest in 1927, in England in 1934, and finally in the United States in 1940. By the 1950's it was a Christmas tradition around the world, and the world knew about sugarplum fairies!
Sharon Cohen, writing in 1997 for a website devoted to Renaissance cooking for historical re-enactments, has done quite a bit of research using primary sources into the nature of the true, historically accurate sugarplum. She says that sugar wasn't refined in London in the 1540's, and was still a luxury for most people. As she points out, "preserving with sugar allowed the sweet fruits of summer to be enjoyed all year round, especially during the holiday season." Her several recipes for sugarplums all involve starting in the summer with very ripe fruit, then more-or-less poaching it in a sugar syrup and then drying it for weeks! I freely admit, this is one I have not tried. However, she is the one who is calling the resulting sweetened, dried plum a "sugarplum." It is not referred to that way by her Renaissance writers.
If you look up 'sugarplum' or 'sugar plum' in the dictionary, most will simply explain that it is a small round candy, although if you look in a cooking dictionary you may find that it is a piece of dried fruit covered with candy, chocolate or fondant. FoodReference.com says that the sugarplums the children were dreaming about were sugar coated coriander! Yowzer! There are some recipes for "sugarplums" that include grinding nuts, dried fruit, like dates and prunes, honey and sugar together with lots of spices. These are then shaped and rolled in something like more sugar so they won't be so sticky.
Since a dried plum is in fact a prune, as we know, often savory recipes calling for stewed prunes will call them 'sugarplums,' perhaps to make the recipe sound glamorous and exotic instead of ho-hum. Can you imagine a ballet with the Dance of the Prune Fairy being a central number? Instead we have "Chicken with Champagne, Sugarplum and Cranberry Sauce", or something along those lines. (I made that one up; don't look for it in your cook books!)
Of course, since marketing is everything, there are a number of companies eager to explain why their product is the sugar plum. One is a very sweet plum, available at Mount Lassen Farms in Vina, California. This particular fresh sugar plum, available only during the last week of July and the first two weeks of August, it is unlikely to be the reference for either the poem of 1843 or the ballet of 1892. I wouldn't put a fresh plum in a stocking!
Then there is Vermont Country Store, whose version is "a truffle-like chocolate-coated candy that will have you dancing all night long. Ours are made by hand from a luscious plum compote and wonderfully rich, dark chocolate. They're every bit as delectable as those enjoyed in Victorian England, where sugarplums were the toast of the aristocracy." At almost $18 for 8, they'd better be delectable.
Andysorchard.com thinks that Andy knows what the original sugarplum was. "Before chocolate and refined sugar entered the candy-making industry, sugar plums were the most popular confection. Ours are authentic, old-fashioned and hand-made using all natural ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, honey and some raw sugar," says their website. They start with a dried plum (yes, a prune) and then stuff all this goodness into it; I might like to try these someday.
And while there are a great many lovely plants named after sugarplums or the Sugarplum Fairy, there is even an edible wild fruit that is native to North America and occasionally called the sugarplum, although I do not think it is sweet enough to dream about or and it was certainly not popular in Imperial Russia: the Serviceberry, or Amelanchier canadensis. This temperate zone, suckering shrub typically flowers in April and fruits in June, and chewy jam can be made from the fruit if you beat the birds to it.
So there is the mystery of the sugarplum. What was dancing in those dreams in 1823? Why does the story of The Nutcracker feature a Sugar Plum Fairy? We may never know, but I have provided here a number of garden options as well as online resources and recipes. Or, you can make up your own recipe, with or without sugar or plums; as long as it is somewhat round and sweet, call it a sugarplum. Try chocolate fondant around maraschino cherries, for instance. And remember, any time you would like to cook with prunes, just call them sugarplums!
Thanks to DG members Joan, mgarr, ownedbycats, Terri1948, and kennedyh. The photo of the 1892 ballerina, perhaps the first Sugar Plum Fairy on stage in Moscow in 1892, is in the public domain, as is the 1906 illustration of the children dreaming of sugarplums with an unidentified woman at their bedside ...