By Patricia Alisau
The first sighting of classic taffy appeared about 10 centuries ago in a Baghdad confectioner’s notebook. The recipe eventually made its way to England, where “taffy pull” parties--guests stretching slabs of cooked taffy between them—became the rage. The next stop was America.
Taffy became a trendy snack at seaside resorts by the mid-1800s and nowhere more than at Atlantic City where visitors were drawn by its reputation as a health retreat. No matter the ailment, doctors prescribed its salt air and bracing ocean waters as a cure-all. These crowds also tracked sand from the beach onto hotel lobbies and owners complained. To keep everybody happy, the town constructed a wooden walkway with planks two feet above the beach and, voila, the Boardwalk was born as a sand-free promenade. Losing little time, vendors hawking taffy set up stands where the foot traffic was heaviest.
Fate showed its hand one moonlit night when a high tide soaked one such merchant’s taffy barrels with sea foam. Thinking himself ruined when the discovery was made the next morning, the vendor was on the verge of tossing the whole mess out when a little girl ran up to buy taffy. Calling it “salt water” taffy, he obliged, brushing off the salt. She loved it, the name caught on and the merchant used it as a marketing tool. Ironically, it was the same traditional taffy but with a new name.
Salt water taffy shops really mushroomed after this, but one savvy businessman, Enoch James, saw beyond the “fast buck” approach and set out to create a candy empire. In 1880, he founded his company, experimented to get rid of the stickiness in the taffy so it wouldn’t pull out teeth and cut it in an oblong shape easier to chew. More than 130 years later, the ocean-blue marquee on the Boardwalk and New York Avenue announces the James Candy Company, which claims to be the longest-running business in Atlantic City.
Run by the Glasser family, candy entrepreneurs with origins in Germany, who bought it in 1947, the store sells 25 flavors of taffy decked out in colorful bins and display cases, just like an old-fashioned Sweets Shoppe. It’s hard to bite into just one and walk away when flavors such as root beer, lime, peach and chocolate dipped banana, just to name a few, beckon.
Besides the James brand, there’s also Fralinger’s Original Salt Water Taffy, which is a story of arch rivalry among peers. Known as the Taffy King” in his day, Joseph Fralinger, a former fishmonger, bricklayer and glassblower, turned to taffy making in 1885 as the fad took off. Growing his business up and down the Jersey shore, he was astute enough to make even more sales when he pioneered the idea of an Atlantic City souvenir by packaging his taffy in oyster boxes to be carried home. Glasser eventually acquired the company in 1990 so the taffy wars ended with both brands under one roof.
For a behind-the-scenes-look at taffy making, James offers hourly tours in the summer months. The factory is completely mechanized now and machines turn out 700 cut and wrapped pieces a minute, Glasser explained. Gone are the days of confectioners hand pulling taffy from hooks to make it more pliable and glossy looking, he added.
James exports all over the U.S. and Canada nowadays, so salt water taffy has become a year-round venture instead of just a seasonal market. For example, the next time you spy taffy in Costco, it’s probably a James’ brand.
Without a doubt, salt water taffy is the best sweet spot in Atlantic City.
How to get to Atlantic City
Spirit Airlines flies directly into its international airport. There’s also quick train service from the Philadelphia airport, which serves more airlines. New York City is also a train ride away. Atlantic City also caters to a heavy drive market from the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
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