Collingswood author Jen A. Miller (former editor of SJ Magazine!) is celebrating the release of her second travel book, The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May. Miller mixes warm-hearted memories of summers at the Shore – stories you’re sure to relate to – with facts, footnotes and travel tips about the areas lining our nearby coast. She chose this excerpt for SJ readers.
Poking salt water taffy is hard work.
After five minutes of punching holes into what looked like a soft, oversized Louisville slugger with an ice pick, my triceps ached and sweat wet the lining of my Shriver’s baseball hat.
“No, like this,” said Igor Dukov, the production manager at Shriver’s. He drove in the pick in one motion, punching a deep hole as the machine gently rolled and rocked the taffy, elongating a thick log into a long string ready to be cut and double wrapped in wax paper. My efforts left dimples on the taffy’s surface. I never quite got the hang of it, even after trying to poke the air out of two 50-pound batches.
My arms might have hurt, and I might not have been the perfect air puncher (Dukov came over every five minutes or so to punch more holes so I wouldn’t ruin the batch), but I was living a dream: making salt water taffy at Shriver’s in Ocean City.
Every summer, my family made a few trips to Ocean City. Sometime after rides at Wonderland Pier and cones of custard at Kohrs Bros, we’d stop at Shriver’s to watch the taffy being made. I’d press my fingers and nose up to the window separating the store from the taffy-making room and marvel as the taffy was pulled, cut, and wrapped. It’s a fast process. The machines cut and wrap 300 to 400 pieces a minute and, in the summer, Shriver’s makes 2,000 pounds of taffy a day.
I always begged my parents for a box, and after shuttling four kids up and down the boardwalk, they were tired enough to oblige. But I was never as enamored of the stuff when I ate it off the boardwalk. Taffy is sweet, cloying even after the first few pieces, and old salt water taffy – usually found at the back of the cabinet on Labor Day Weekend as we packed up our camper – is hard and threatens to pull out fillings. But I made such a big deal about wanting taffy that my mom would force me to eat a few pieces before throwing out the box.
“Never again,” I’d swear. Until next summer when I’d press my fingers and nose up to the glass and watch the taffy fly by.
I stayed away from salt water taffy after my parents sold their shore place, but I was hooked after I wrote the first edition of this book. How could I not include Shriver’s, or James’ or Fralinger’s? Even if I shied away from salt water taffy, people still bought tons of it. Just about every candy and taffy store, and a lot of gift shops, hawked boxes of the sticky stuff. So I asked Shriver’s if I could join them on the production line – in the name of journalism, of course, not in the name of my five-year-old self – to see what the fuss was all about.
I got my wish. Sort of. The machines are old – most from the 1950s and 1960s – and have their own “personalities” (much like the seatbelts in my Honda that only I can get to work), and there wasn’t enough time in one day to teach me everything.
Instead, I tagged along with Dukov and watched the process. There is no salt water in salt water taffy. There is no salt, either. The name comes from an 1890s’ taffy stand on the Atlantic City boardwalk and, as tends to happen to spots along the ocean, it flooded. The next day, as the owner cleaned up, a little girl stopped by and asked for some taffy, which he told her – bitterly, I’m sure – was salt water taffy. The name stuck.
There might not be salt, but there is plenty of syrup, sugar, and hard fat flakes that Dukov hand measured and scooped into a boiler that cooks the taffy with steam. The batter comes out as a liquid and is poured into red plastic bins to set until it looks like Vaseline. The taffy hardens as it cools until it can be pulled out of the tub in a solid mass. It is then cooled again on tables that have cold water running underneath them.
Then the taffy is put on the first puller, which winds it around two rotating arms. This adds air to make it chewy and also allows any flavors or coloring to be mixed in. Then the taffy is cooled again, preparing it to be put on the final machine, where it is dusted with corn starch and rolled into the right size for cutting and wrapping. That’s where I stood – at the final machine – punching air back out of the taffy so it could be worked through the machine to be cut and wrapped into finger-long pieces without breaking.
There was no veil of secrecy about the process – no signing of a confidentiality agreement or swearing on my firstborn child that I would not share the recipe. There isn’t a special sauce. Even if new flavors have been added to the line, the recipe hasn’t changed much since 1898, though instead of machines, the taffy used to be pulled by hooks and manpower and was cut and wrapped by hand.
Being that it was the spring and a weekday, I wasn’t exactly playing to a crowd – just a few adults and two toddlers being pulled in a wagon by their mother. They were transfixed, just as I had been. I even waved, and they smiled back.
Maybe that’s where this love comes from: Salt water taffy is the Jersey Shore. Salt water taffy is tradition. It’s being a kid and watching taffy being made. Taffy is so much more than simply candy. It evokes memories of riding the waves on my boogie board, making dinners over a campfire and eating them at picnic tables, my hair still wet from showering in the cramped bathroom of our cramped camper, and nights when I stayed up way past my bedtime on the Ocean City boardwalk to ride the carousel, the Tilt a Whirl, or the Flying Bob, and to watch salt water taffy being made and beg for a box before going to bed still feeling like I was rocking on the waves. That’s what salt water taffy means, all wrapped up in one chewy bite.
It’s also about eating it fresh. I ate a piece of chocolate taffy right out of the machine. It pulled instead of stuck, and it was a little gooey so the chocolate flavor rolled around my mouth. It wasn’t hard. It didn’t suck out my fillings. It was sweet.
I took a box of taffy home, along with chocolate-covered pretzels and sugared rainbow fruit slices. It was too cold to leave the windows down, but I cracked them open just an inch and pretended it was the summer wind blowing through my hair as I ate a few more pieces. I put the rest of the box in my freezer, which is where it will stay until I’m ready to thaw it out and share it with family and friends so they, too, can smell, taste, feel, and remember a bite of summer.