Dietribes: Salt Water Taffy

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• First, some mythology: as one story goes, in 1883 a huge storm hit Atlantic City (this isn't the spurious part!) and flooded the boardwalk and the shops, including a whole stock of taffy. When a young girl asked for some, shopkeeper David Bradley jokingly said, "grab some 'salt water taffy.'" Today some recipes for salt water taffy do still call for a teaspoon of salt.

• Don't believe that? Here's another explanation: it's probably due to the proximity of the water to the boardwalk. That fact was used as an early marketing tactic: Joseph Fralinger, known for popularizing taffy, sold "salt water taffy" to sunbathers and tourists as a souvenir (early correspondence from Fralinger refers to the taffy as "Ocean Wave," "Sea Foam" and eventually "Salt Water Taffy"). The results were, of course, a hit!

• James' Salt Water Taffy, a rival of Fralinger's, may be gone from the Boardwalk, but it is not forgotten: the storefront receives a premiere spot on the "Boardwalk Empire" set (Fralinger's is now part of James' Confections).

• Consider it "public domain": In the 1920s "original" salt water taffy was trademarked by John R. Edmiston, who immediately asked the larger taffy companies to share in their profits thanks to the trademark. He was, of course, sued. In 1923 the Supreme Court ruled that the taffy had been around too long and used by too many people to provide royalties.

• The Boardwalk's two biggest taffy rivals, Fralinger's and James', set aside their differences during World War II in order to share their taffy first with the armed forces overseas and then to the wounded servicemen at local hospitals. With the lack of sugar, their factories were sometime shut down for a few days for their regular costumers, but both stores felt it was more important to do their part for the men on the front first (salty and sweet!)

• In the 1920s, salt water taffy was at the height of its popularity. More than 450 manufacturers were making and/or selling the candy at that time.

• Taffy has remained popular: Frank Sinatra holds the record for the largest single mail order: more than 500 boxes of James's taffy went to his friends and relatives the morning after his first performance at Resorts International in 1978. But not everyone is a fan: In 1979, both Resorts and Caesars casinos offered bused-in gamblers a choice of a souvenir box of saltwater taffy or $5 in quarters. Nearly all the gamblers took the money.

• In 1993, Arthur Gager III, a Fralinger descendant, wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of saltwater taffy on the Boardwalk, with the world's longest outdoor taffy pull. But unfortunately, hot sun and muggy humidity reduced the taffy to a gooey mess.

• In better conditions, how is taffy usually made? Pulling taffy aerates it, or incorporates many tiny air bubbles throughout the candy making it lighter and chewier (yum yum).

• Honestly I'm not sure that I've ever had salt water taffy! At least not in a long time. What about you guys? And what are your favorite flavors?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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October 19, 2011 - 7:51am
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