Today was a day I actually planned for. Well, sort of. You see last week I glanced ahead at what holidays were approaching and I noticed National Taffy Day was coming down the pike. Now that piece of information was in my head although I really had no further plan of action for it. I just knew it was coming. Last Thursday, we happened to take a trip to Watch Hill, RI and when we were walking around, we stumbled upon one of the few shops that were actually open at this stage of the season: a candy shop. It was kind of out of the way, tucked behind the main shopping area just behind the famed carousel. I’m sure in the height of summer, the shop has a steady influx of customers but on a random May weekday, there wasn’t much happening. We could see the shopkeeper sitting behind the counter glancing out at the lonely shelves filled with candy. We almost didn’t go in but then I realized it was National Taffy Day and this would be perfect. They had a whole display of Salt Water Taffy in various flavors. I picked up a box of assorted flavors and we were on our way. I had my plan for National Taffy Day all buttoned up.
There’s something about seashore excursions and taffy that seem pretty well connected and in fact, the origins of taffy can be found on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. While there is no exact spot where it was first created, in the late 1800s, taffy started to become popular in county fairs throughout the midwest at the same time it started gaining popularity on the Jersey Shore. It was a candy pioneer by the name of Joseph Fralinger who helped the candy become a seaside fixture. He came up with the idea of selling the candy to bathers and strollers along the Boardwalk in boxes that could be carted home as a souvenir. That idea took off and soon more people joined him at selling sweet treats to frolicking vacationers. Fralinger’s taffy is still being sold today which is a tribute to the quality of his candy and his salesmanship.
There is no salt water in salt water taffy. There is a little water in the taffy and a little salt, but no seawater. There’s no definitive answer to why it’s called salt water taffy although the most popular story is one that involves a shopkeeper on the Atlantic City Boardwalk named David Bradley whose store fell victim to a raging tidal surge from a summer storm in 1883 and left all his merchandise underwater. The next day a girl asked for some taffy as Bradley was mopping up and he sarcastically told her to help herself to his ‘salt water taffy’. Bradley’s mother liked the sound of that and he encouraged her son to start using that name for his taffy as it had more of an allure to it. Moms know best, I guess.
Making my own taffy was not an option because to make taffy, you need to pull it. It’s made from sugar, cornstarch, corn syrup, water, butter and salt and is usually cooked in copper kettles and cooled on marble slabs. Then the pulling begins. Pulling taffy is designed to add air to the candy. As Wikipedia says:
“By draping 10 to 25 pounds of cooled taffy over the hook and then pulling away from the hook, the taffy stretches. When the taffy reaches a 5- or 6-foot length where it might become too heavy for itself and fall off the hook, the puller loops the taffy back over the hook, folding it onto itself and trapping air between the two lengths of taffy. This process of aeration helps to keep the taffy soft.”
Most of that is done by machine now and if you have ever walked by a candy store that makes their own taffy, you’ll be mesmerized by how this is done. The place for watching this that stands out in my mind is Goldenrod in York, ME. They have their machine right in the window and their building is located at the center of action in this great little seaside town. The window watchers block the sidewalk to see the taffy being pulled and then the vacationers snatch up boxes of the Goldenrod taffy like they were treasures. They are really. There was always a mystique to salt water taffy purchased at the beach. It was always presented as something so very special – a humble brag that you had candy that was only available at exclusive stores down by the beach. The mere offer of such candy would evoke utterances of wows. That allure isn’t the same anymore as taffy is pretty much widely available but for a time, it was a big deal much in the same way oranges from Florida were. Today’s world has gotten smaller and a bit too convenient to make taffy feel special.
I managed to not eat any of my Watch Hill taffy until today. Taffy is actually pretty good. Its sweet, chewy and fruity. I seem to recall not being totally sold on taffy as a kid and that’s probably because they’d throw in random flavors so you could have two pieces that were nice and fruity and then you’d get a cinnamon or, even worse, licorice flavored. Why would they do that? I guess I had trust issues with taffy because some pieces I loved and other pieces I hated. As an adult, I find it all good (except for licorice) and they are always a welcome sweet treat. It’s fun to unwrap them too, like having a box of presents all to yourself. The Watch Hill taffy was really good. It was fresh and still nice and soft and the flavor was outstanding. Each piece of different colors surprised me with how fruity they tasted. Made me really appreciate how good taffy can be.
When I told Lola that today was Taffy Day, she envisioned another kind of taffy. She thought of Laffy Taffy and specifically she thought about walking up the street to Cumberland Farms as a young girl to get some. That is technically taffy, but kind of a different breed. Laffy Taffy is made by the Willy Wonka candy people and while it’s still nice and fruity, it’s not quite as soft as the kind you get at seaside resorts. It has a slightly mass-produced taste to it but still a classic taste to the grown-up kids of today. Laffy Taffy had a different shape too – it was thin and rectangular with bright wrappers plus it was somewhat stretchy so your bites would create a string of taffy from your mouth to the bar. There were silly jokes on the wrappers too which would amuse you for the ten seconds it took to read them, and any candy that builds up your joke catalog is good by me. Laffy Taffy is everything a kid would want and definitely worth the trip to Cumbys. What a perfect way to celebrate!
That’s what I did. When I got home from work, I asked Lola if she wanted to take a walk up the street for candy, like we were two ten year olds on a middle school date. Lola was game for the trip too so we locked our doors and were soon hoofing it up the hill to Cumberland Farms. It’s kind of fun to take a walk to get candy. It reminded me of trips to the penny candy places when I was a kid. In my home town, it was the Old Mill which was a really old building on the other side of town that sold antiques but also had a counter full of candy that you could order. The owner of the shop was a little old lady who spoke in and odd southern accent which would toss you for a loop because it was so out of place. She’d keep the tally as you went so you could concentrate on the candy selection and not have to tally your own spend. The typical exchange was like this:
“Can I have four Fireballs?”
“Ok, that’s 8 cents.”
“Can I have two candy cigarettes?”
“How about three Zots please?”
“You’re at 36 cents”
You’d leave with a brown bag full of goodies that you would make last as long as you could. It felt like you had gone on a Stand By Me type adventure although with more candy and less dead Brauer boys. When we would spend the summers at our summer cottage, there was a spot there called The Knolls which had a similar set up for penny candy. The route there was more treacherous though as you had to literally walk the perimeter of a lake and even swing out over the water by grabbing a willow tree. Rumor had it that some kids never made it back. But in the end, it was all worth having a bag of candy complete with Laffy Taffy.
Lola told me about how she would go to Cumby’s for her Mom as a kid and how they would even give her cigarettes (for her Mom) because they knew her and her family. She said that she would get Laffy Taffy there but sometimes she would branch out and get OK Soda (which I have never heard of) or even Cheese Fries if she was feeling salty. There’s a certain joy about going to the store when you are a kid with your own money and being able to pick out what you want, especially when you have to take a little journey to get there. It’s a simple pleasure and instant gratification. It’s that feeling of being an adult, but not quite. The hardest part of our trip was crossing over East Main Road which is kind of a busy road. We managed to dart across safely but the vision of a young Lola running across the street made you wonder if it was the safest place for her to travel. In any case, we were in Cumberland Farms now and we made a beeline to the candy section and Laffy Taffy was not jumping out at us. We started a pretty thorough search going row by row. We found a spot where there was candy similar to taffy, but no real taffy. Then I peeked around the corner and I found a little display that had loose mini candy on display like Lindt chocolate balls, CowTales and Ice Cubes – the stuff that used to be penny candy in my day but was now priced three for a dollar or similar. That’s where I found the Laffy Taffy. They had three flavors: strawberry, sour apple and banana. It had changed though. They were now long straws of candy and not the famous Laffy Taffy rectangle. Still, mission accomplished. We bought one for each of us and then Lola also bought a Charleston Chew because she was already running down memory lane. Then we marched on home.
Lola had a strict rule that you couldn’t eat the candy until you made the East Main Road crossover. I guess that indicated you were safe so when we were back on the right side of the road, we both opened up our taffy and chewed on it as we walked down the hill. Lola was a bit concerned about the new packaging but after a few bites, we found that the long straw shape made it actually easier to eat and little less work for your teeth and jaw. It was actually pretty tasty and a lot softer in texture than I had imagined. It was good strawberry flavor and kind of the perfect size. It took me the length of the street to finish it up. Lola enjoyed it too and we had a good little date walking down the street as she shared some stories of her past journeys to the Farm with me. Cumberland Farms has really been right up the street for Lola her whole life and although it has seen a few iterations over that time, it’s always been there for what they needed. Even Laffy Taffy.
Later in the day, Lola enjoyed her Charleston Chew too which she was pleasantly surprised with – it tasted just like she remembered. It was chocolatey and the marshmallow center was nice and sweet with almost a taffy like texture to it. Some people will freeze their Charleston Chew but to me, those folks are crazy. I hate frozen candy. It makes me feel like I am eating a dog treat that is designed to clean your teeth. Candy is for eating, not gnawing. Lola agreed upon the non-frozen variety too. This too was another trip down memory lane for her – a taste of her childhood and that’s what we revisited today.
See how just a little planning makes these celebrations easier? I guess I’m saying that to myself so I learn to do it more often. In any case, it was nice to be ready for this day and even though it was kind of a simple celebration, it ended up being a good one. I learned about taffy, I discovered a new appreciation for it, I discovered what it meant to Lola and I also got to share a journey into Lola’s past to enjoy the sweet taste of taffy alongside her. I’d say that’s a celebration. So whether your a bather walking the Boardwalk on Atlantic City or a young girl going on an adventure for sweetness right up the big hill in your neighborhood, taffy is always a good find. Appreciate it for what it is and what it makes you remember. It tastes great but it is packed in memories too. Any food that can do that is ok in my book, just as long as it’s not licorice.
Next up: National Escargot Day
(History from HungryMonster.com)