Sugar. Corn syrup. Glycerine. There aren’t a whole lot of revelatory ingredients in saltwater taffy, but the stuff inspires a dedicated fanbase all the same; it has been around for more than 130 years, having sprung up on the Jersey Shore in the late 19th century. It’s not salted, but may be made with salt water—which makes sense, given that it tends to be found on oceanside boardwalks and other similar East Coast tourist destinations each summer.
But there seem to be two to three haters per every lover of salt water taffy. These treats, like Necco Wafers, hearken to a bygone era of candymaking, and many people would rather see it left in the past. The Takeout staff is similarly divided on the merits of saltwater taffy. Below, we present cases for and against this summertime sweet.
The first time I tasted a wax-wrapped piece of taffy handed to me by my mom from a large variety bag at Indiana Beach Boardwalk Resort, it looked a lot like a slightly more scraggly Starburst, Mamba, or Now and Later, so I was expecting that level of artificially puckery flavor. You can imagine my initial shock—but it was not disappointment. The candy was more muted and tougher to chew than I thought it would be, but with each bite, it was like further deciphering a code. Now I get it, I thought as the number of wax wrappers beside me piled up and caught the breeze off the boardwalk during the water show (on Lake Shafer, far from any actual saltwater).
As we age, it’s common for our maturing taste buds to turn away, if only slightly, from the super-duper-sweetness we once craved and would do anything to have. When that happens, saltwater taffy is there to bridge the gap. That is, if you can find a fresh piece and not one of those shard-shootingly stale ones, because at this age you’ve probably got fillings you need to worry about. The point is, saltwater taffy satisfies a small but significant portion of the palate: that mid-afternoon craving that you can’t quite put your finger on. And it comes with the bonus of summertime nostalgia. —Marnie Shure
I grew up in the Midwest, far from any ocean. Saltwater taffy was something I read about in books—generally older children’s books written before 1970, full of nostalgia for a simpler time before Hershey bars and Reese’s cups and M&Ms, when the greatest pleasure a child could expect was a stick of horehound candy at Christmas or hot maple syrup drizzled on a pan of snow or a piece of saltwater taffy. The children in those books rejoiced over these wondrous old-fashioned treats, and I was deeply curious about them, because I thought that if anything was immortalized in a book, it was far more important than anything in real life.
Then some neighbors went to Atlantic City on vacation, or some other boardwalk out that way, and brought back a few pastel-colored rolls of saltwater taffy. I thought they would be like the taffy on taffy apples, which I loved. Boy, was I disappointed! It tasted like nothing at all.
But Marnie is right: people grow and change and so do their taste buds. Although I still love the snow candy-making scene in Little House in the Big Woods and the chapter in All-of-a-Kind Family where Charlotte and Gertie eat candy and crackers in bed, I understand that books cannot make up for real life.
And so last week, at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, knowing this assignment was coming, I snagged some saltwater taffy made by the Sweet Candy Company out of Salt Lake City and, in the interest of fairness, I tasted a couple of pieces before I started writing this post. One was buttered-popcorn-flavored and the other was huckleberry. They both tasted better than I remembered. The flavors were mostly identifiable (huckleberry was a bit of curveball), though neither was especially salty. But the candy itself was sticky and hard to chew and now my jaws are sore. I can think of at least a dozen other types of candy I would eat first, and I’m grateful to live in an age when everyone can have access to chocolate. —Aimee Levitt