Nothing screams summer like pulling a chunk of saltwater taffy out of your permanent retainer. Sticky though it may be, saltwater taffy is an unmatched seasonal treat that stirs up summertime nostalgia from coast to coast. But it turns out that saltwater taffy doesn’t actually contain, uh, salt water. At least, not in the way you might expect.
Per Britannica, saltwater taffy originated on the east coast, likely in the Atlantic City area. It’s unclear exactly when taffy was invented, though a number of confectioners have laid claim to the original recipe. One candy company credits an Enoch James with the recipe; another report cites a man named Joseph Rowling. Regardless, taffy gained steam as a boardwalk product in the late 1800s.
The recipe hasn’t changed much, if at all, since then. Taffy is still made by combining a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, butter, cornstarch, flavoring, and coloring; after cooking, the mixture is cooled and stretched to create a soft, aerated product. The recipe does also call for salt and water—but it doesn’t call for seawater as the name might suggest. Ready for some taffy trivia? Turns out that the name “saltwater taffy” originated as a joke.
Britannica explains that the joke began in 1883, when an ocean swell flooded a boardwalk trinket shop. When the shopkeeper discovered the mess, he realized that all of his wares—taffy included—were positively soaked in seawater. Legend has it that a young girl stopped by for some taffy shortly after; at that point, the shopkeeper offered her some “saltwater taffy.”
There you have it: an old-timey joke befitting an old-timey product. In fact, some of today’s best-known taffy purveyors still use the old techniques. (Here’s a great video of an Ocean City confectioner using a rickety old taffy pull to stretch the product.) If you’re itching for a taste of the shore, might I suggest gathering your strongest friends and hosting an old-fashioned taffy pull? They say candy tastes sweeter when you have to work for it.