Food & dining

Food & Travel

The distinctly American nostalgia of salt water taffy — and how it’s made today

Leon Busby works with the cooled taffy in the kitchen area at Hill-Top Candy in Brockton.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Leon Busby works with the cooled taffy in the kitchen area at Hill-Top Candy in Brockton.

BROCKTON — At Hill-Top Candy here, a team makes 75,000 pieces of salt water taffy a day. With its bright colors, simple paper wrapping, and old-fashioned box, the confection is an American classic. The beach wouldn’t be the same without globs of it sticking in your teeth as you get a tan and dodge the occasional seagull attack. It’s a treat that makes you feel young again.

“You ate it as a kid at the beach, and you can still get it now,” says Heather Perez, archivist for the Atlantic City Free Public Library. “It’s something to share with family, and everyone has their favorite flavor.”

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What you may not know, however, is how much precision and hard work it takes to make a piece of the iconic confection. Every batch of taffy teeters on the edge of disaster. Too much air and it won’t be chewy, and if it’s cooked at a temperature too low, it’ll melt all over your hands. To get that wonderful candy New Englanders consider indispensable, it takes the know-how and effort of a skilled craftsman.

Atlantic City is regarded as the birthplace of salt water taffy, but according to Perez, it’s just the name that originated there, not the candy itself. Legend has it that one night in the early 1880s, during a ferocious storm, a boardwalk taffy stand was soaked by the waves. The next day, a young girl allegedly asked for some, and when told about the ocean water said she’d try the candy anyway. After having some, she labeled it “salt water taffy,” and the rest is history. As Perez points out, there is no actual saltwater in the taffy.

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As taffy gained popularity, it spread north to New England, most likely via vacationers returning from the Jersey Shore who craved the treat all summer long. Nowadays, taffy is made all over the region, including at Hill-Top, which opened in 1946.

Hill-Top’s industrial-park location may be a far cry from candy makers pulling taffy in some nostalgic shop-window scene, but more space is needed when working in this kind of volume. The crew makes taffy daily during the summer, working from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Hill-Top distributes taffy to gift shops, candy stores, and supermarkets across the country, but most of its major clients are locally based.

The process of making a 35-pound batch, from beginning to end, takes about an hour. The candy starts as sugar, water, corn syrup, and shortening mixed together in a massive copper kettle. If too much water goes in, the taffy can become too sticky to work with, according to owner Chase Kurinskas. After 20 minutes on the stove, at exactly 250 degrees, the clear goo is poured on the first of two cooling tables.

Taffy that has been pulled and stretched and colored.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Taffy that has been pulled and stretched and colored.

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“If we’re cooking to 250 [degrees] and we pull it off at 249 or 251, the machines will struggle to cut the candy,” says Kurinskas, who bought the business six years ago. “It will slow down the process. It’s amazing how much of a difference 1 degree can make.”

After it hits the cooling table, the taffy is mixed with flavoring (Hill-Top offers more than 70 varieties), food coloring, and citric acid for some flavors. When the mixture begins to solidify, it is formed into giant slabs and placed on another cooling table, where it falls to a temperature cool enough to be handled.

After a total of 15-18 minutes on the tables, the taffy is placed on a large mechanical pulling machine with four arms that stretches the batch for three minutes. The stretching is crucial because it allows air into the mixture, creating the chewy, light texture. As with all steps, however, pulling requires precision. “If you add too much air, it’ll be a marshmallow texture; not enough, and it’ll be like a rock,” says Kurinskas.

Kurinskas adds that in the old days, taffy makers had to painstakingly hand-pull every batch on a hook.

In a separate room fitted with dehumidifiers to keep things dry, the taffy is wrapped using a 1920s-era machine that noisily slices the candy and twists sheets of paper around each piece, spitting out thousands of pieces per hour. The machine is very finicky and difficult to manage, but luckily Hill-Top has a secret weapon: Jose Torres, an employee of 30 years who can fix the equipment, and taught Kurinskas the art of candy making when he acquired the business.

When Torres operates the machine, he utilizes rollers to stretch a thick loaf of taffy into a long, thin log. When making a variety that requires multiple colors or flavors — like watermelon or Neapolitan — Torres combines them.

Hill-Top offers classic flavors such as cotton candy and sour apple, but also creates more modern options like banana split, chocolate raspberry, and yellow cake. Cookie dough, mint chocolate chip, peanut butter, and salted caramel are among the popular choices. A giant mountain of taffy sits in the factory, waiting to be boxed up and shipped across New England, and Hill-Top also makes boxes containing individual flavors for clients. Whatever the kind, salt water taffy is sure to bring back happy memories.

“Candy always puts smiles on people’s faces,” Kurinskas says. “No one dislikes candy. No one has any ill will toward candy. We’re not an insurance company.”

Emma Cashman in the shipping room at Hill-Top Candy in Brockton.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Emma Cashman in the shipping room at Hill-Top Candy in Brockton.

Jose Torres Jr. (left) and Leon Busby poured taffy onto a cooling table.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Jose Torres Jr. (left) and Leon Busby poured taffy onto a cooling table.

Jose Torres operated a machine that slices and wraps the candy.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Jose Torres operated a machine that slices and wraps the candy.

Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.
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