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Fork in the Road: Hidden gems from Christmas past

From candy canes to sugar plums, our holiday foods are stuffed with stories
Here’s to creating your own holiday stories.

Visions of sugar plums dancing through your head? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Or maybe you’ve got some corn for popping?

Not that I’m trying to resurrect Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past or anything, but sometimes you just have to wonder where all these iconic foodstuffs have come from that have inveigled their way into holiday songs and culture as much as they have our hearts and hearths.

Marshmallow snow, figgy pudding, candy canes aglow—they’re all part of feasting and festivities this time of year, especially wherever European traditions have put down roots or had a big influence, including most of Canada.

So what’s behind some of this classic stuff, including turkey stuffing? Let’s start with those mysterious sugar plums, which probably aren’t what you think...

Setting the sugar-plum record straight

Long before refrigeration was even dreamt of, sugar was used as a preservative for centuries, especially for all the fresh produce harvested in northern climates like ours long before winter solstice. That, of course, only partially explains why we have so many sweet things during these darkest days of the year. (The other part of the equation is the way sugar, in reasonable amounts, boosts our brain power and our mood.)

When sugar is added to fresh foods, including vegetables and fruits like plums, it creates an osmotic effect, absorbing water out of the food. Bacteria need water to survive and multiply, so less water means fewer microbes in your treasured foodstuffs.

For centuries, people have been sugaring whole plums to preserve them, or chopping up dried plums and nuts and dates and rolling them into little balls for confections at Christmas and otherwise. But the sugar plums of the 1823 “Twas The Night Before Christmas” fame are none of the above.

Amongst other sources, the amazing Grocer’s Encyclopedia of 1911 (see below, for some great holiday reading) sets the record straight. It notes that sugar plums, including those around the time of the above poem and when Tchaikovsky was composing “The Nutcracker,” complete with Sugar Plum Fairy, were actually little hard candies.

Traditionally known as dragee or comfit, they were made by adding layer upon sugared layer, often around a seed, much like a jawbreaker, only these came in the shape of a plum. Eventually, sugar plums became wrapped up with Christmas, but for centuries  prior you would have sucked on a sugar plum any time of year.

The best origin stories have mysterious origins

While the sugar plum story is clear, lots of Christmas-y food tales truly are lost in the mists of time. Me, I like it that way—keeps the magic in the mystery, and vice versa.

There’s the oft-repeated story that candy canes were first made in Germany in the 1600s at the request of a choirmaster who asked a confectioner to bend one end of traditional sugar sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s hook. These were supposedly given to children to hush them up during the l-o-n-g Christmas service. Or the hook might have been just a good way to hang sugar sticks on Christmas trees. Who knows?

And no one really knows where roasted chestnuts originated. They were an obvious, nutritious food source from trees that grew in Asia and Europe for millennia. I ate my first ones in China, and Indigenous North Americans have eaten a different variety here long before any settlers, let alone Christmas, arrived.

Turkeys were “discovered” in Mexico about 1520 by Cortés and his gang, who took some to Europe where they became about as popular as sugar, eventually landing as a centerpiece for feasts there, as they had been in Central America for ages, because they were so big and tasty—and “special.”

Stuffing them with stuffing is as old as bread itself, a carry-over from the idea of stuffing any poultry or trussed-up meat or game with some form of seasoned bread to add flavour, sop up meat juices, and generally make the meal go further.

Happy holiday reading with a twist

If you’re still not satisfied and feel like really digging down into traditional feasting (Christmas or otherwise), Michigan State University has an incredible online collection called Feeding America. It contains nearly 80 of some of the most important and influential food-centric books from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. The graphic design and fonts alone are worth checking out.

My favourite was the huge Grocer’s Encyclopedia, from New York City. Bet you’ll drop down so many rabbit holes you won’t surface till next holiday season.

Compiled over 30 years starting in the 1880s by Artemas Ward—the former editor of The National Grocer—this gem is a “compendium of useful information concerning foods of all kinds…” for grocers and general storekeepers, not chefs or restaurateurs. The appendix alone is 39 pages, with more than 500 words used to describe food and drink with their equivalents in French, German, Italian and Swedish.

In case you grew up like I did, thinking the food world of early-1900s North America was pretty “small potatoes” (add winking emoji) this book will surprise you big time, describing things like 48 varieties of cheese and detailing coffee for 20 pages, including how to properly serve a café au lait or distinguish coffee beans from Yemen.

Way more expansive and practical than a traditional food history book, it makes that world of 100-plus years ago feel way richer and more romantic than our Alexa world of today—which is what this time of year is all about.

Best wishes for the season. And here’s to creating your own holiday stories. Clink!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who was surprised to learn that figgy pudding, plum pudding and Christmas pudding are pretty much the same thing.