Archive for Thursday, December 23, 2004

Visions of holiday foods deceive

December 23, 2004

From the number of references thrown out around the winter holidays of envisioned dancing sugarplums and sweet sugarplum fairies, I imagined most people had an accurate vision of the candy, though my notion of sugar-plums was vague.

Retailers sell sugarplum-flavored lip gloss and lip balm and sugarplum-colored eye shadow, after all.

It must be like knowing about figgy pudding or the ingredients in mincemeat, I thought. I didn't like to broadcast my ignorance, so instead, I looked up several traditional holiday foods : and what to my wondering eyes should appear but unfamiliar ingredients (no tiny reindeer).

Sugarplums, according to the vast Food Timeline Web site, presented by the Morris County Library in New Jersey, were an early form of boiled sweets. The site said there weren't any plums involved, but the sweets were the size and shape of plums and came in an assortment of colors and flavors. There was no real fruit involved. Some had aniseed and caraway seeds at the center.

And for the past two decades I'd assumed sugarplums were, well, sugared or candied plums.

A quick survey of The Current's staff proved my assumption common. Two staff members guessed candied plums and our editor suggested sweet little fruits. Our copy editor, Katie, had the most original response, accurately responding that sugarplums were neither sugar nor plums : but ballerinas who visited people in dreams during the holidays.

Katie's supposition, while amusing, is actually much closer to the truth. The Food Timeline said the candies were most popular in the 17th and 19th centuries but have since been relegated to cliched holiday references and aren't eaten so much as spoken about when discussing Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet or Clement Moore's famous "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

But the perception of fruit persists. Both Amanda Yoho of Lansing and Kathy Philips, who works in Lansing, guessed sugarplums involved actual plums.

The sugarplum mystery piqued my interest in other commonly mentioned holiday foods, so I made up a list and started researching.

Plum pudding, in the traditional British sense, is composed of dried fruits like raisins, suet, flour, sugar, spices and eggs. The mixture is then beaten together, tied into a cloth and allowed to swell while boiling for more than five hours.

The Current staff guessed the pudding was a little more appetizing. Reporter Ellyn Angelotti suggested plums simmered to a liquid state.

Fruitcake, the source of many bad holiday food jokes, is an old tradition and one not always tied to Christmas. Though its reputation is less than savory now, the fruitcake was a popular but difficult-to-make dessert in the 18th century. These days, fruitcake consists of dried fruits baked into a dark, spicy cake.

Mincemeat pie also has long puzzled me. Turns out meat hasn't been an ingredient since the 19th century.

So while I doubt I'll be making sugarplums any tim soon, I feel, after this experience, far more secure in casually tossing off holiday food references. Although now, knowing that sugarplums are actually filled with aniseed, I may have to alter my "visions of sugarplums" to something more pleasant. Visions of marzipan?

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