Daffy For Taffy

Story and Photos by Ross West

nslee’s salt water taffy, in the little town of Depoe Bay, sells about 1000 pounds of the chewy treat each week. One tiny shop. Twenty-six tons a year. And scores, if not hundreds, of shops between Astoria and Brookings offer the sweet, brightly colored, flavor-packed, wax paper-wrapped morsels. Taffy, without a doubt, is the king of coastal confections.

But what’s the, well, pull?

“It’s part of the coast as far as I’m concerned,” says Lynn Cautrell of Springfield, Oregon, a log truck driver who gets his fix at Ainslee’s. “I get some every time I’m over here.”

For Bill Campau, a golden-years snowbird who grew up near Lincoln City, the taffy tradition goes back further than his earliest memories. “My mother ate taffy while I was still inside her,” he says while purchasing four pounds of mixed taffies, “and I’ve eaten it ever since.”

Taffy and the seashore have gone together since the late 1800s, when visitors to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk bought the candies to eat as well as to take home in one-pound boxes as vacation souvenirs.

Blue Taffy

Strangely, no one is quite certain where the “salt water” came from. According to the National Association of Confectioners (and they should know), “The exact history of how taffy came to be is still a mystery.” The story most often told—with lots of minor variations—involves a fierce Atlantic storm flooding the Boardwalk and soaking a merchant’s taffy supply. When a girl asked for taffy (presumably after the storm had settled down) the merchant jokingly offered her some special salt water taffy. Take it or leave it, that’s the story. Most recipes Pulling Taffycall for a little salt and a little water, but there is no salt water in salt water taffy.

One thing that makes taffy so special is its chewy and light texture, which softens and releases more and more flavor as it warms in the mouth. What separates taffy from its denser candy cousins such as toffee is the air that is folded in during the pulling process. As the candy (mostly sugar and corn syrup boiled together) cools, it is stretched and folded and restretched and refolded until the volume increases by about a third and the airy consistency is achieved. Before the advent of pulling machines with their mesmerizing and crowd-pleasing circles-within-circles movement, candy makers used to hang one end of an armload of taffy on a large wall-mounted hook and then pull, stretch, and fold.

Hundreds of different flavors can be added to taffy. Amaretto, rhubarb, bubble-gum, and cheesecake are popular. And then there are the fruits: apple, banana, cherry, cantaloupe, and watermelon, not to mention blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, and huckleberry. Molasses is usually credited with being the oldest taffy flavor, while lately customers with more adventuresome palates have been snapping up candies infused with “extreme” cinnamon, jalapeno, and even habanero, one of the world’s spiciest peppers. Top sellers in Oregon are peppermint, cinnamon, chocolate, and peanut butter. Most flavorings are added at the very end of the taffy production process and can be eye-poppingly expensive. Mint is the spendiest of all, costing $400 a gallon. Lucky for candy makers, a little mint goes a long way.

About two-thirds of all the taffy gobbled in Oregon moves across the counter between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when production lines often operate 18 to 20 hours per day to keep up with demand. If you are a hardcore taffy fan, you might want to mark May 23 on your calendar: that’s the day America celebrates National Taffy Day.

Of the many hundreds of places to buy salt water taffy along the Oregon Coast, most don’t make their own product. Here are five landmarks that do—heck, with an average of around six decades selling sweet treats, these aren’t just candy stores, they’re institutions:

Shopping for Taffy1 Bruce’s Candy Kitchen
256 N Hemlock St., Cannon Beach, 503-436-2641
When Sunset magazine highlighted West Coast candy shops offering “taffy worth traveling for,” one of the four named was Bruce’s Candy Kitchen in Cannon Beach. Bruce’s (known as Krutchkies Candies before being bought in 1963 by Bruce and Treva Haskell) is located on the north side of downtown and easy to find due to its brightly painted pink and white stripes. A remodel in 1985 made the taffy production, pulling, and wrapping process visible from the street though large windows. The store, which has employed four generations of the family, stocks 23 flavors (including sugar-free taffy). According to an Internet blogger, Bruce’s “is the best-smelling room in the entire world.”

2 Phillips Candy Kitchen
217 Broadway St., Seaside, 503-738-5402
As far back as 1897, a candy store has stood in Seaside at the current location of Phillips Candy Kitchen. In 1925, the Phillips family matriarch, then a schoolgirl, took her first summer job selling confections for the original owners of the shop. In the 1930s, she and her husband purchased the store, operating it only in the summer season. Most operations today are in the hands of their sons, Steve, the CEO, and Pat, formerly a plant manager for See’s Candy. Visitors can see the vintage 1923 taffy puller stretch up to three hundred pounds of taffy per day, some of which is sold to other retailers, including Made in Oregon. “We’ve been in business such a long time,” jokes Pat, “we must be doing something right.”

3 Read’s Homemade Candies
1009 NW Highway 101, Lincoln City, 541-994-2966
A candy store with a distinctive red and white paint job opened in Lincoln City (then the city of Oceanlake) in the early 1950s. It was relocated to its present site in the heart of town in the mid-1960s, and purchased by Carole and Jim Read in 1974. During the summer peak, Read’s produces about 125,000 taffies per week in 18 flavors. Visitors watching second-generation candy maker Mark Read through the viewing window can see him testing the consistency of the taffy on the pulling machine (“It’s a touch thing. You just know when it feels right”). Mark and his wife Cynthia—both of whom have had careers in law enforcement—will be taking over the shop at the end of summer.

4 Ainslee’s Salt Water Taffy
66 SE Highway 101, Depoe Bay, 541-765-2431
Graham and Helen Ainslee opened their waterfront candy store in 1947 and sold it to the current owners, Dale and Cindy Nelson, in 1978. The store’s large number of repeat customers prompted the staff to start a sign-up sheet to track visitors’ hometowns and first visit to Ainslee’s. The chronological list—with no shortage of entries for 1947—has grown to more than two thousand families and individuals from as far away as Australia. One recent customer was U.S. Army infantryman Jacob Cropper from Newberg, Oregon. On a two-week leave from fighting in Iraq, Cropper made a pilgrimage to Ainslee’s. “All the other stuff you can get anywhere else,” he says, “but taffy is a beach thing—they make it right here.”

5 Newport Candy Shoppe
440 SW Bay Boulevard, Newport, 541-265-2580
At the age of 18 Robert Hoefs opened Newport Candy Shoppe in 1989. He learned his skills from 84-year-old master candy maker Martin Herman, who instilled in his student an understanding of what makes great candy. “It’s all about the materials you use,” says Hoefs, who prides himself on using cane sugar rather than the less expensive beet sugar. He has 3000 pounds of taffy in stock. The shop carries about sixty varieties, including his own inventions of Oregon Beaver orange and Oregon Duck banana—each of which features an “O” in school colors embedded in the candy. His rolling machine can handle up to 150 pounds of taffy at a time (“The biggest I know of on the West Coast”) while another machine, visible through the store’s bay window, cuts and wraps 160 pieces per minute.

Oregon Coast March/April 2007  
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