Answer Man: What's the salt in salt water taffy?

News-DemocratOctober 30, 2013 

Do they really put salt water in salt water taffy? -- C.J., of Mascoutah

Well, sort of, but certainly not like when the tasty confection first took Atlantic City, N.J., by storm -- literally. At least, that's the popular urban legend we're asked to chew on every time this question comes up.

The year was 1880 (or 1883, depending on who's telling the tale). Young David Bradley was running a candy store on the Atlantic City boardwalk, which had opened in June 1870 to help keep guests from tracking sand into trains and hotel lobbies at the popular seaside resort.

One night, the story goes, a major storm hit. It flooded Bradley's little stand, which was just a couple steps off the beach. The next morning, he was understandably dismayed when he opened his shop to find his entire stock of candy soaked with the ocean brine.

So, later that day when a child came in to buy taffy, Bradley reportedly asked sarcastically, "You mean salt water taffy, don't you?" But the girl was delighted, and Bradley's mother, who overheard the exchange, suggested that her son use the term to entice rich tourists into buying a unique treat.

"Who would want to eat candy soaked with ocean water?" he replied dejectedly.

"Don't make it with ocean water," she said. "Just use salt water and call it that."

Whether this incident really happened is regarded as doubtful. Bradley never asked for a trademark, and historians say the term wasn't even used in Atlantic City business directories until 1889. It's likely that some savvy candymaker dreamed up the name as a marketing ploy so that Atlantic City souvenir hunters would associate the candy with the ocean surf.

Besides, taffy has contained "salt water" from its earliest days. Nobody seems to know when the first batch was cooked up, but salt and water apparently were always part of the recipe along with sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch and butter. Besides Atlantic City, taffy is thought to have become a staple at country fairs in the Midwest by the 1880s.

So while Bradley is still the hero of apocryphal lore, the real king of salt water taffy is thought to be Joseph Fralinger. A one-time glassblower, fish merchant and bricklayer, Fralinger decided to take over a concession stand on the boardwalk in the early 1880s. He sold fresh fruit, mineral water and lemonade, drawing customers by juggling lemons outside his stall.

Still, he, too, later remembered seeing how popular David Bradley's taffy was. He recalled how one day he was standing at Bradley's booth and heard children asking for "salt water taffy," "ocean wave taffy" and "sea foam taffy."

"How many names have you for that candy?" he reportedly asked. "We let them call it any old thing," Bradley is said to have replied.

So, in the winter of 1884, Fralinger began working on his own taffy recipe, believing that he could make a killing by selling it to tourists as a souvenir. He was right. Remembering his days as a fish merchant, he bought 200 one-pound oyster boxes and filled them with thin, finger-sized logs of his taffy. He sold his initial stock in just a few hours, and it wasn't long before he added such treasures as almond macaroons, peanut butter chews and creamy mint sticks, all based on family recipes.

His success didn't go unnoticed. Soon, Enoch James moved to Atlantic City from the Midwest to produce several key turning points in taffy-making history. His new recipe reduced the stickiness that often left taffy cemented to the wrapper -- and those who indulged pulling out their teeth. He also cut the candy into bite-size pieces and introduced machinery that pulled, wrapped and packaged the chewy stuff.

Today, you still can find many of James' and Fralinger's original treats at their New Jersey stores or at www.jamescandy.com, where you can watch an eight-minute video on the companies' history. You can even take a plant tour during the summer if you're ever on the East Coast.

The name's origin, however, remains lost in the sea mists of time. In 1923, John Edmiston finally obtained a trademark for "salt water taffy," but when he began demanding royalties from other companies, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the term had been in common usage too long to require such payments.

In any case, I suppose to find true salt-water taffy you would have had to have been there, for example, after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. But, then again, I suppose the FDA today would have ordered people like Bradley to destroy their inventory because of possible contamination.

Today's trivia

Who is the only player to twice hit the most home runs ever recorded in a single World Series game?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: After losing the 1930 World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Cardinals made one lineup change for their 1931 rematch and it made all the difference: Pepper Martin. Martin had had 13 at-bats with the Cards in 1928, but was sent down to the minors for two more years of seasoning. Then, in 1931 at age 27, the rookie quickly cemented his place in the lineup with 124 hits, 75 RBIs and a .300 average in 123 games. His offensive power continued right into the World Series, in which he led the team in hits (12), doubles (4), runs scored (5) and RBIs (5) as the Cards dumped Cornelius McGillicuddy's (Connie Mack's) Athletics 4-3 and ended their quest for a threepeat.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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