When I think of candy and the idea of giving, I think of the candy bowls grandmothers of a certain generation left out for their children and grandchildren. These women grew up during the Depression and wars when sugar shortages were common and sweets hard to find. Once sugar was available they filled their bowls to the brim with brightly colored sweets, as ornamental as delicious. It’s no surprise some of these candies became standard Christmas fare, such as the art candy, ribbon candy, and candy straws.
Of all these candies, the art candy is the most impressive, in my opinion, with images of flowers and fruits engraved in the sugar base. It’s funny to think that the art candy started at beach-side getaways in England in the late 1800s. The resorts would roll their image and name into the center of the candy and people would buy bags of them as souvenirs. Whether for the winter holidays or summer getaways, though, the art candy is a symbol of love and fun.
Of all the Christmas candy that everyone loves, the sugar plum resigns supreme in folk lure, song, and a general representation of the Christmas spirit. This is odd, since almost no one knows what the sugar plum really is. So, I’m here to tell you.
In essence, sugar plums are sugar coated seeds or nuts first made in the 17th century. They were made by skilled craftsmen who apprenticed for years, absorbing the nuances of a trade that makes Julia Child look like a scullery maid in comparison. First, they coated seeds or nuts with gum Arabic, then put them in a “balancing pan,” suspended over a large, low fire, and rolled them in sugar syrup. To keep the coating even and the sugar from crystalizing, they kept the seeds and nuts in constant motion, stirring them with one hand and moving the pan with the other. They controlled the temperature of the heat by controlling the intensity of the fire.
Once the candy was coated, the confectioner set it aside where it dried for a day or two, then began the process again, stirring and moving, adding layer upon layer over a period of weeks. In the last stage, the sugar coating smooth as glass, he often added a flourish of color, mulberry juice or cochineal for red, indigo stone for blue, spinach for green and saffron for yellow.
These sugar-coated bits were no gob-stoppers, but eaten with great decorum, after medieval meals in fourteenth century Paris. In the early 1700s, they were given as gifts, particularly the sugar-coated almond with its symbol of joyous beginnings.
The name “sugar plum” appeared in Thomas Decker’s Lanthorne and Candlelight, in 1608 but had nothing to do with plums, prunes, or any sort of poached fruit. Instead “plum” referred to the word “good.” “Sugar plum” equals “good sugar.” Given the cost and time involved in producing them, the sugar plum was also associated with money. If someone was giving a bribe, they were said to be stuffing that person’s mouth with sugar plums. “Plum” was also 18th century slang for a large amount of money.
SUGAR PLUMS TODAY: WHAT THE FAIRY NEVER KNEW
Today the process of sugar-coating a seed, nut, or sugar crystal is dubbed “panning” and it’s a huge industry, encompassing the Jaw Breaker and Fireball (made in 1901 and the 1950s respectively), Boston Baked Beans, M&Ms, jelly beans, and Skittles. Companies produce the sweets in a “pan” that looks like a small cement mixer. To do this day, the candy maker lets the
candy dry then returns it to the pan, adding yet another layer of sugar and so on. Like the old-time sugar plum, the average Jaw Breaker and Fireball takes about two weeks to make and has 100 layers.
One of our favorite candy-makers sent us a truly delicious candy he agreed to make just for us: the cherry cordial. The cordial is jollier than the truffle with its relatively round chocolate exterior, its distinctive runny center, and deliciously sweet cherry nugget at the center.
So, naturally, that got me thinking: who thought to put the cherry in the center of the chocolate? Why not just a good-old plain cherry? And why all the fuss involved in making it a maraschino cherry? So, after a little exploring I found that – like so much in the candy kingdom – the story of the cherry cordial goes back to ancient apothecaries.
Here’s what happened: In the 1400s, Europeans were drinking a distilled beverage called “cordials” used to “invigorate the heart and revitalise the spirits,” according to British food researcher Ivan Day. These drinks were undoubtedly for the well-to-do given that some even contained flecks of gold, yes actual gold, that were thought to renew the body’s heat and free it from diseases.
Gradually, the cordials became renowned as a recreational drink, helped by their reputation as an aphrodisiac. One example, is the Rosolio, which was “Distilled over large quantities of the insectivorous bog plant sundew…and included hot provocative spices like cubebs, grains of paradise and galingale,” writes Day, adding that seventeenth century medical writer William Salmon, claimed the sundew “stirs up lust”.
So how did this multipurpose beverage become the cherry cordial of today? Accoding to a fascinating piece in CandyFavories.com the road here is little windy starting in France in the 1700s. There, confectioners made a tasty sweet of chocolate covered sour cherries. By the time these candies reached the U.S., where they became mass-manufactured in the mid-1800s, confectioners were soaking the cherry in alcohol…ie cordials. Gradually, the alcohol faded away and the cherry cordial was, essentially, cordial-less.
As for the maraschino cherry? The answer goes back, at least in part, to the U.S. government. According to Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 1999) the cherry itself goes back to Dalmatia (now in Croatia), where, no surprise, it was used for a liqueur, which is still made in Italy.
The maraschino cherry became our bright and emboldened maraschino in the 1920s with the help of Dr. Ernest Wiegand, who founded the schools food science department. In 1928, he developed a process for manufacturing the maraschino cherries into their present (more or less) state in 1928 to address a problem due to a surplus of cherries.
With Thanksgiving drawing near, what with the pies and baked goods that litter the table, it’s only natural to wonder what kinds of sweets the first Americans were eating at the time of the settlers. I am speaking, of course, of the Native Americans, who had a complex and multifaceted relationship to sugar.
One example, is the cranberry, which once grew in bogs and marshes all over North America. No mere tart little fruit, the cranberry was one of the nation’s original sugars. Its original name depended on who was using it: The Indians of the east called it “sassamanesh” the New Jersey Leni-Lenape, “ibimi,” and the Wisconsin Algonquin, “atoqua.” (It took the settlers to conjure its current name based on the cranberry’s pink blossoms which they thought resembled the head and bill of a crane.)
Unlike today, when the cranberry is confined to sauces, the occasional cookie, and the more spirited health food bar, the Native Americans used it to treat a range of ailments, from arrow wounds to fevers. What gave the berry its power, though, was its acid and high sugar content, which also made it a preservative. It lasted throughout the winter in dried cakes and extended the shelf life of dried meat for Native Americans on the trail in such foods as pemmican. Of course, it was also flavorful and healthy fresh fruit.
Halloween Marshmallows, who also found it useful as a food, preservative, and medicine.
Other European-Americans caught on: whalers and sailors discovered that the cranberry could fight scurvy and Ulysses Grant sent cranberries to Union soldiers at the Siege of Petersburg. During World War II, the U.S. Government sent troops a variety of fruits and candies, including a million pounds of dried cranberries each year.
Most noteworthy is that the cranberry was wild at heart and difficult to cultivate. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Europeans even attempted to harness its spirit and, up until recently, the cranberry resisted impressively well. In fact, today the cranberry still holds onto its free-spirited self: just eat a raw cranberry to find out.
If you consider fruit a provider of the first sugars in North America, then you must admire the thirteen-thousand-year-old blueberry. The sweet little button-bearing plant grows around the world, spreading its roots from Alaska to the jungles of South America. It’s hefty, sturdy, and steadfast enough to endure long winters and productive enough to feed the masses.
For Native Americans, the blueberry served numerous purposes. Depending on where they lived, they used the juice as a dye, the leaves as a tea meant to improve the blood, and the roots and leaves as a multi-purpose medicine. They added blueberries to stews and crushed them into a powder as a rub for meat.
The high sugar content also made the blueberry a delicious food and preservative that lasted through the lean days of winter. In fact, the ever-present blueberry appears in a legend from the Northeast, which calls the blueberry a “star berry” for the star shape at the bottom. The legend reveals that the Great Spirit sent the fruit to help humans during a time of famine.
To get more information on the blueberry, I contacted Joel Rohbe, who was referred to me by some folks at the Red Lake Nation, home of the Ojibway tribe in Minnesota. He told me that the Ojibway have eaten nothing but wild, uncultivated blueberries. “You should see,” he told me, “there are acres and acres of them. All the land as far as you can see, everywhere, turns blue.” To ensure the berries’ growth, the tribe burns a portion of thefields every year, which enables the berries to die back and return with new, invigorated life.
So important is the blueberry, and so steadfast and significant its nature, Native Americans have been using it for 10,000 years.