Sunday, December 02, 2012

Knapsack 12-6

Notes from my Knapsack -- Granville Sentinel 12-6-12

Jeff Gill


A vision of sugarplums



There's not much left of an old fashioned Christmas, by some measures.


You don't find "presents on the tree" anymore. The 1943 hit "I'll Be Home for Christmas" had Bing Crosby singing about gifts you might imagine dangling from the branches of that tree back at your folks. It was long after those homesick GI's came back from overseas that the lyrics were bent into "presents under the tree."


Get a toothbrush, a new shirt, or an orange as your gift? You'd count yourself as ill-used and neglected indeed. Now we look for weighty consumer electronics and home entertainment systems which would snap the trunk, let alone branches.


Baking and canning are niche hobbies for many of the few (!) who still know how to do them. Some have found in sustainability an ethic that affirms the old, hot, time consuming ways to consume our produce and pickings, but for the rest of us, cloves and cinnamon sticks are more likely to be used in art products than in food preparation.


But even for those of us who enjoy cooking with odd elements and even pine for a chance to take up blacksmithing, there's those "sugarplums" in Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Going all the way back to 1823, if not older (but that's when it saw print), this story of an Old World bishop in his red robes, adapted a bit for northern European climes and perhaps influenced more than a bit by Odin All-father, includes a number of charming archaisms that even so are still comprehendible today. Nightcaps and kerchiefs in homes without central heating, chimneys down which a spritely figure can clamber, dusting their ermine with soot, and even a "bowl full of jelly" – all this we can easily imagine in 2012.


Sugarplums, though, not so much. Are they candied fruit? That's what I used to assume. It was in looking up some old seasonal recipes that I learned that, other than in shape, there's no plum in sugarplums. They're sugary candies built up, layer by layer, in a long slow process that starts with a seed, whether rock crystal candy or even a caraway seed. Then the hard rounded sweet is dipped and dunked and added to layer by layer, until you have a final size and shape to your satisfaction coming out of the simmering simple syrup, and then dusted for good measure with . . . sugar! They were very occasionally started with an almond at the center, but no dried fruit was ever used that I've found.


It's almost a jawbreaker, with a hint of Everlasting Gobstopper, since a child could get one and work on it for days, even weeks. (Let's not think about where that 1823 child stored it in between chaws.)


Having read up on sugarplums, I'm convinced that my best approach to an old-time Christmas is more along the lines of making snickerdoodles or a fruitcake. Fruitcakes can last a long time, too.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County, and he hopes you'll have yourself a merry little Christmas. Tell him your favorite old recipes of the season at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment