The mechanical taffy pulling machine tops my list of things (like campfires, magicians, and the TV show “How it’s Made”) that are put on this earth to be stared at. Taffy is not necessarily my favorite candy, but nothing can beat watching it produced the old-fashioned way, with the mechanical arms folding the great mounds of sugary, rubbery goodness into and out of itself. The magic comes when, as soon as the taffy looks like it’s being stretched thin enough to break, the second arm returns with another thick, doughy mass and saves the day. The observer almost breathes a sigh of relief each time this happens, which is about every 3-4 seconds, and often feels the need to hang around and watch to make sure it continues. Such a great display in the front window of Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen was, for so long, a staple of any visit to my hometown childhood tourist trap: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. On a recent visit trip I was happy to see the taffy pulling machine still churning its magic in the front window. While many candy shops have replaced such difficult to maintain relics with factory made variations of cellophane wrapped baskets with mass-produced confections for sale at overly inflated prices, Ole Smoky is still going strong. What a relief! It made me begin to think about what makes a good candy store, that one delicious-smelling vendor of all things delightfully yummy that can light up even the most horrific tourist town. Very few such establishments can find that special place in one’s heart that cannot be filled by much else – be it the Wax Museum, House of Horrors, or Ripley’s Motion Master, everyone has their favorite tacky place. The Candy Shop is the one for me. But since the old-fashioned candy store has, over the generations, too often become limited to the gentrified Main Streets of well-to-do towns with a modestly touristy clientele, in addition to its quintessential place in the occasional tourist trap, my sugar-detection radar is generally on high alert whenever I find myself somewhere that might have one.
Like any respectable American, I of course understand that if I want something (like candy) I can get it whenever and wherever I want. What a deal! Made in a factory full of stainless steel, carefully handled by robotic arms and hot plastic, made with the cheapest possible dose of high fructose corn syrup, this ‘everyday’ candy that I can generally acquire from my local EZ Stop at 3 am is not what I would call handmade gourmet, and to me, not worth the calories. Because of this, I must make an effort in pursuit of something more delicious, more unusual, and more worth it. I am looking for a place that makes me feel like I’m in that edible room in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where everything from bouncy balls to teacups is made of spun sugar. Please let me know if you are aware of such a place.
Most candy as we know it was developed in the late 1800’s, when machines started to do a lot of the hot, sticky work involved in making it. An Atlantic City candy merchant was once flooded during a freak storm, forcing him to sell “salt water taffy.” Cotton candy was first introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair as “fairy floss” and is still called by that name in Australia. Chocolate had been made by hand for years in Europe and South America, and was making its way to America, thanks to easier transportation. Candy corn, lollipops, and jelly beans were all introduced at about the same time, when people started to do crazy things like attend World’s Fairs, drive cars, and engage in other selfishly ridiculous pursuits like vacationing that might allow them a day or two off every few months or so. Our mechanically made favorite, taffy is traditionally made from a combination of brown sugar, vinegar, butter, and molasses. In my grandmother’s time, farm kids would often make a Saturday night social event of the taffy pull – taking globs of the hot, lumpy mixture and, partnered up with a potential significant other, alternate pulling and folding it until it was soft enough to stretch into ropes, then cut into bite-size pieces. The pulling puts enough air into the taffy to make it soft enough to work with/chew. Imagine the embarrassment if you were sitting in the front seat of your Model T at Lookout Point and your only remaining tooth fell out before Bobby Ray or Betty Sue had a chance to hold your hand. Mortification ensues.
As I continue to be on the constant lookout for more taffy-pulling machines in front windows, other candy shops, like Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, are still living the dream. In Lambertville, NJ “The Chocolate Box” sells handmade chocolate coated potato chips and chocolates infused with bacon in addition to traditional dark, creamy confections. In Richmond VA, “For the Love of Chocolate” in Carytown has a wall of various flavored malted milk balls (Whoppers have nothing on these!) available for bulk selection – milk, dark, or white chocolate, mint, peanut butter, coconut, Neopolitan…..and those are just the ones I chose! In Australian movie theaters, one can fill a bag of “lollies” with variations on gummy bears, sour worms, and chocolate buttons of his or her choice for obligatory theater noshing. All these candies are distributed in 4 foot clear plastic urns with a nice little scoop at the bottom. In Brugge, Belgium (one of the greatest producers of chocolates in the world) various little shops scattered along cobblestone streets look like they jumped out of a Dickens novel, and sell perfectly shiny confections with surprise middles. Many will sell you for a very reasonable 5 euros, a box of 10 assorted pieces, in a white box tied with a nice brown ribbon, no less. So fear not, kiddies. The Candy Man is alive and well and may already be in a tourist town near you. As long as we continue to have a sugar craving, he will get us what we really deserve and need in the way of lovingly handmade delicious confections, because no kid should ever be forced to spend his allowance on a mass-produced bag of stale Skittles from the gas station.