By Marion Fish
As a child, I first tried salt water taffy at Mackinac Island, a northern Michigan resort island. The candy elicits fond memories of carefree seaside fun, hovering gulls, vast expanses of sand and horizon, and leisurely summer strolls along the boardwalk.
As a hardened adult, however, I wanted disclosure. Does this chewy delight really contain part of the ocean surf?
Todd Whitely, vice-president of the nation’s first maker of salt water taffy, says there’s history here.
“Legend has it that Salt Water Taffy received its name by accident. A young candy merchant opened a taffy stand on the first Atlantic City Boardwalk - then just two steps above sea level. One night a generous tide brought in lively surf which sprayed sea foam over his establishment and dampened his stock of candy. The next morning, the merchant was dismayed to find his merchandise wet and responded to a girl's request for taffy with a sarcastic but witty, "you mean Salt Water Taffy?" The name stuck.
Todd freely admits that there is no salt water in his product; water straight from the ocean does not meet FDA regulations. But, sea salt is indeed an ingredient.
At the same time Joseph Fralinger, a former glassblower and fish merchant, opened a retail store on the Boardwalk. Within a year, Fralinger had added a taffy concession and spent the winter perfecting the Salt Water Taffy formula, first using molasses, then chocolate and vanilla, eventually reaching 25 flavors.
As Fralinger's grew to six locations, he decided that Salt Water Taffy should return home with resort visitors. Using experience from his fish merchant days, he packed one pound oyster boxes with Salt Water Taffy, making it the first "Atlantic City Souvenir." The one pound box still remains the company’s most popular souvenir almost 125 years later. By 1899 Salt Water Taffy had become a household word across America.
Meanwhile, confectioner Enoch James and his sons claim to have been making Salt Water Taffy before they introduced it on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in the 1880's. After many years of working for large candy companies throughout the country, Mr. James brought his family to Atlantic City to sell their "original" Salt Water Taffy.
Enoch James developed a premium recipe that would not pull out one's teeth. He also eliminated the stickiness that made the taffy and its wrapper inseparable. The result was a smooth, rich, wholesome taffy available in a variety of flavors and a new "Cut-to-fit-the-mouth" shape. The James' product line soon extended to chocolate dipped Salt Water Taffy, filled centers, chocolate taffy pops, macaroons and boardwalk fudge. Enoch James packaged his confections in seashore novelties such as the "barrel" and "satchel" that are still popular today.
In the 1880's, Salt Water Taffy was cooked in copper kettles over open coal fires, cooled on marble slabs, and pulled on a large hook on the wall. Pulling the taffy added air to the corn syrup and sugar confection. By draping 10 to 25 pounds of cooled taffy over the hook and then pulling it away from the hook, the taffy stretched. When the taffy reached five or six feet in length, the puller looped the taffy back over the hook, folding it onto itself, trapping air between the two lengths.
An accomplished taffy puller would work quickly and listen for the familiar swish sound, then the smack or slap sound of the two lengths as they joined as one. This process of aeration helped to keep the taffy soft and prevented stickiness. The pulled taffy was then shaped by hand rolling it on a marble or wooden table into 1/2 inch diameter snake. It was then cut to the proper length with scissors. And finally, the taffy was wrapped in a pre-cut piece of paper with a twist at both ends. All of this was done by hand and usually within the sight of Boardwalk strollers who were eager for entertainment.
By 1907, the James' family had updated the manufacturing process to include taffy wrapping machines, the first candy pulling machines, electric tempering ovens, and vacuum cooking kettles. These machines made great strides for the taffy manufacturing process and are the basis of how taffy is still made today.
Whoever was the originator of Salt Water Taffy, Enoch James' and Joseph Fralinger's original recipes and excellence in candy making have been preserved and today their fifth generation is proud to continue their sticky and sweet tradition. Though a boardwalk fire destroyed the original factory, they still operate out of the boardwalk factory that was rebuilt in 1925.
As the oldest operating business in Atlantic City, the Casino Redevelopment Authority is working on developing this charming historic site to allow walking tours of the candy manufacturing.
Atlantic City history has passed through its doors. Celebrities and every-day visitors alike stop by for photo ops at James’ and Fralingers,’ and the shop has been featured on the Food Network, Burt Wolf, Philadelphia PBS and the Today Show.
Being a traditional business with historic roots does not preclude having an eye to the future for ways to progress. This year James’ and Fralingers’ proudly announced that all their products are kosher certified by the OK, among the world’s most reliable and highly esteemed kosher agencies.
“We were always interested in making a kosher product,” Todd explains, “but as a small company, we were afraid that the extra supervision may require too much work. But I schmoozed with a young neighborhood rabbi and he connected me with OK Kosher Certification, who in turn introduced me to Digital Kosher, a company that handles kosher certification management. Collecting the information on our raw materials, I was pleasantly surprised that each one already had reliable kosher certification, except for marshmallow (derived from horse hooves).
“This problem was easy to correct. Only one product, chocolate marshmallow fudge, contained the culprit, and it was not used in any cooking utensils, so we could have received kosher certification on our other products immediately. But we decided that we wanted all our products to be kosher, so we switched to an approved, non-animal based marshmallow. As a result, our nine retail stores are now totally kosher. OK offered us guidance at every step; they want the companies they work with to be successful and flexibly accommodated our particular needs.”
Over the years, James’ and Fralinger’s has expanded beyond the original vanilla, chocolate and molasses taffy flavors to include banana, lemon, licorice, lime, molasses mint, orange, peach, peanut butter, peppermint, root beer, spearmint, strawberry and teaberry. They also produce such old-time specialties as pecan coffee cake, caramel popcorn, mints, fudge, peanut chew, macaroons, and chocolate coated products. The taffies are available in nostalgic collectible tins that have replica artwork of classic 1910 seascapes and beach scenes. The child friendly taffy satchels were first created in the early 1900s as taffy holder and keepsake Atlantic City souvenirs.
The company relishes their heritage and has chosen to remain true to who they are. “Rather than cannibalize our established brand by adding cheaper ingredients just to sell a $2 bag of junk, we maintain course as a small volume, high quality manufacturer. It’s in our best interest, as well as that of the high end retailers who carry our line such as Williams Sonoma and Vermont Country Store. OK kosher certification is a perfect fit with our requirement of catering to discerning consumers.”
All products OK-D