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Eating the Past: Delaware's saltwater taffy

Colorful taffy in candy wrappers.
Ava Tyler
/
Unsplash

This is Tammy Proctor, and today we're visiting Joe Biden's home state for a look at a tasty tradition from Delaware's seafront communities — taffy! Just as I did with my earlier episode on cherry mash, I want to take a look at one iconic sweet treat — this one from the Dolle's company in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

While saltwater taffy probably originated in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the late 19th century rather than in Delaware, and Dolle's candy company actually began in Ocean city, Maryland, the Rehoboth Beach Dolle's location was famous for its iconic sign at the Dolle's Candyland on the boardwalk. The sign only recently was removed to a local museum after nearly a century by the sea.

The company, which began life as a small taffy stand, expanded to Delaware in 1926 and assumed its location on the boardwalk a year later. Since then, except for a few storms and other setbacks, Dolle's has delighted children and adults alike.

So what is taffy? It's a sugary and sticky candy that takes a little while to chew. Part of its attraction is the taste — many flavors are fruity — but also taffy is fun. Many a girl scout in my childhood had taffy pulls, where we tugged and shaped and giggled over the long bubble gum-like ropes of taffy. We made our own with marshmallows, but we also visited places that let you pull the taffy. Even if you have never pulled taffy yourself, you may have been mesmerized by the machines that stretch and shape taffy before it is cut and packaged.

So does taffy use saltwater from the sea? Not really. The term 'saltwater taffy' probably came from its popularity on the boardwalks of the eastern seaboard rather than from ingredients. Taffy as a candy had existed earlier but became extremely well known as a boardwalk food in seaside towns like Rehoboth Beach.

Ingredients are pretty standard, although like many candies, they have changed over the years. Original taffy was probably made with molasses and butter and simple seasonings. Now you can invent a variety of colors and flavors for your taffy concoction, and it is more common to see recipes that feature corn syrup than molasses.

If you'd like to make taffy at home and host a taffy pull, then you'll want to stock up on butter, corn syrup, half & half, cornstarch and salt. The ingredients are cooked on the stovetop at medium heat until you get to about 245 degrees (that's for altitude), but a little higher if you don't live in the mountains. The main thing is not to cook it too long or it turns into hard candy. When it reaches the correct temperature, add flavor or color, then pour it onto a flat buttered pan to cool. When you can pick it up, the fun really begins.

The candy should be pliable enough to pull into ropes or shapes. It can be twisted or formed, and it can be shared between sets of little hands for even more entertainment. When you are done playing with it, let it cool entirely and then wrap it in waxed paper.

If you don't want to make your own, plan a vacation to Delaware, where you can still get a bag of caramel popcorn and a fistful of saltwater taffy in different flavors while you play in the waves at the beach. Dolle's, while now in a slightly different location, continues to dish up its iconic treats.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.