The recipe I was following called for molasses, not a usual ingredient in my cooking. But the moment I stirred the required substance into the batter, the aroma took me back to summers in New Jersey and the salt water taffy Aunt Jennie and Uncle Bill would send my brother and me during their annual vacations in Atlantic City. The molasses-flavored taffy was not the first I’d reach for; it seemed a grown-up thing, but I was always surprised that I liked it.
Legend has it that a taffy seller whose stand was doused by a surprisingly large wave coined the term “salt water taffy.” It’s not, as I thought as a child, made with water from the sea; that, I realize now, would be pretty gross.
(Not long ago, my daughter and her husband visited California’s Catalina Island where she purchased salt water taffy to bring to me. “My mother will say this is not the real thing,” she told him. And she was right: I did say that, and it was not. That taffy was in round pieces in various different colors, their flavors a mystery until you tasted them. The taffy from Atlantic City, particularly Fralinger’s® (“Sea Air and Sunshine in Every Box”) was oblong in shape with the flavor printed on the label wrapped around it.)
I mentioned to my daughter the sensory experience that a tablespoon of molasses provided to me and wouldn’t you know, on my birthday she presented a large, very heavy box and told me to unwrap it. Thinking it might be some new electronic device I would struggle to master, I tore off the wrapping to see FIVE POUNDS of salt water taffy from Atlantic City. Considering the age of most of my friends and the ways in which they baby their dental work, this might very well be a lifetime supply of taffy for me.
But it was a sweet thought (pun intended) and particularly welcome now that beleaguered Atlantic City is in the news again. The city is broke and unable to pay its police, firefighters and other public employees, and Gov. Chris Christie is refusing to grant any emergency monies to help.
In 1975, shortly after Ed and I moved with our two daughters from California back to New Jersey, we took a drive to the Jersey Shore, stopping in Atlantic City so the girls could see the real-life places they knew from the Monopoly® game. (I’ll never buy Baltic Avenue again!” one wailed.) As for me, seeing the dilapidated condition of this once-fabled city was depressing and enough to convince me to vote in the next election to approve casino gambling. “It can only help,” I reasoned, “providing much-needed jobs and tax funds to repair crumbling infrastructure.”
So what happened? A lot of big casinos opened and closed or went bankrupt. Donald Trump went through at least four of them all by himself. If you read the early casino commission reports, gambling in Atlantic City was a boon. So how come the city is broke?
A few years before leaving New Jersey this last time, we visited a friend in nearby Ocean City who suggested we might like to take a look at Atlantic City. Because we hadn’t been back since casting those pro-casino votes long ago, we were indeed interested. We headed for the formerly Trump-owned Taj Mahal, walked through its gaudy interior, shook our heads at $100 slot machines, and ate lunch in one of its cafes. Afterward, we drove around a bit to view the surrounding neighborhood. Not far behind the Boardwalk-fronting line of glittering casinos, the city still looked much as we remembered it. Poor old Atlantic City.
Still makes the best salt water taffy though.