Now Playing: Salt water taffy
My wife and I go to the beach at least once a year. Our favorite coastal retreat is Pismo Beach, one of five cities 82 miles North West of Santa Barbara. This is a quiet town that has been allowed to slowly grow and to acquire considerable charm. To me it has the look and feel of warm, gnarled driftwood even with all the commercial tackiness of a typical beach community.
Every restaurants serves, “The best clam chowder” and it is true that no matter where you eat, the clam chowder is pretty good. There is a bowling alley, a pool hall and shops that sell hand-blown glass, home-made soaps, yogurt, ice-cream, beach attire and, of course, salt water taffy.
I don’t know what it is about the beach that arouses within us the craving for this particular confection; and I think that if we do want to sink our teeth into globs of sticky sugar while at the beach it must be a desire entirely crafted by marketing geniuses who earned undergraduate degrees in psychology; but however it came about, every beach town in Southern California hawks the stuff.
On a day trip to Morrow Bay we wandered into a shop that sells nothing but salt water taffy. There were big wooden tubs everywhere, all filled with pastel colored candy wrapped in wax paper.
“We have every flavor you can think of and some you can’t,” the owner cheerfully announced. “Our newest is chicken and waffles!”
Chicken and waffles may sound like an unlikely combination to those of you who reside outside Southern California; but in Altadena, a city not far from where I work, there is a famous restaurant called Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles. I’ve eaten there. The food is great and you can really get, among other things, a satisfying meal of chicken and waffles.
I made the mistake of saying, “That sounds good.” I was only trying to be polite. Let’s be honest. Is it possible to be in your right mind and actually think that turning chicken and waffles into taffy is a good idea?
“Well then you just take this here free sample,” the owner, who will from this point on be referred to as Taffy Man, said as he thrust a piece of candy into my hand.
I was stuck. There was no way out of this. How could I refuse to eat a free sample after saying how good it sounded? I could have had the presence of mind to say, “You know, I’d love to eat this but, doggone it, I’m a diabetic and my doctor told me that if I eat just one more piece of candy I could slide right into a coma.” But, as usual, I didn’t have the presence of mind to save myself. At such critical moments my brain freezes up and I do what I’m told: take the candy and eat it.
The light brown taffy stuck to my teeth and then began to slowly dissolve. I closed my eyes, concentrating on the flavors. No fried meat or melted butter on fluffy cooked batter greeted me. I was chewing what can best be described as rather ordinary maple candy. The waiter had brought me a bottle of syrup but the food had yet to arrive.
We inched our way through the store, dropping carefully selected taffies into a bag like picky children on Halloween. The assortment of flavors was truly impressive. Apple, green apple, sour apple, apple sauce, apple cobbler, spiced apple, apple yogurt, candy apple, apple liquor, apple pie, apple tart and that was just the apple section.
I began to wonder about this particular business model. Someone had to have talked Taffy Man into this and I conjured up what the sells pitch might have been.
“Everyone buys taffy when they go to the beach, right? Am I right? Why, you see it everywhere! But how many places sell gourmet taffy? And I guarantee that everyone who walks into your store will buy taffy. All you do is give them a free sample. That way they’ll feel like rat bastards if they don’t buy something. And you don’t have to worry about your stock going bad. Taffy will stay good until Jesus comes back. You can’t lose!”
Not knowing a thing about business or how to make money, I can easily imagine myself falling for this pitch. Instead of taffy, though, I would choose to market a vast variety of exotic jelly beans: deep fried cherries, apple flavored brown rice, root beer infused with Greek yogurt, day old pizza, pumpkin seed, sour horehound, salmon, eggs over easy, chewing tobacco, horseradish, shrimp cocktail, curry, pulled pork, chocolate and hot sauce, dandelion wine, French fries, pancake batter and so on.
I would give it a suitably cute name like Doc Bear’s Jelly Bean Emporium. It seems like a pleasant enough way to make a living but my business skills would doom it from the beginning. I’m the kind of captain of industry who takes command of the Titanic. At the slow but inevitable approach of bankruptcy I can see myself resorting to increasingly desperate measures, like playing the accordion or dressing up like Willy Wonka.
A family enters the store and I crouch, swing my arms from side to side and begin to sing, “Oompa loompa doom-pa-dee-do I have a perfect puzzle for you…”
The parents smile nervously and the children back slowly away, their eyes big, their skin crawling. Eventually some unpleasantness ensues, professional people are called in and I’m led at last to the happy farm.
At the counter I started to take out my credit card but Taffy Man told me that my purchase wasn’t big enough. I had to buy more taffy or use cash. Short of real money, I borrowed two dollars from my mother-in-law and then handed Taffy Man two one dollar bills and two quarters to pay for two dollars and thirty eight cents worth of gourmet salt water taffy.
Taffy Man took my money and then suddenly looked at me blankly.
“You’re buying two dollars and thirty eight cents worth of taffy,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“And you gave me two dollars and fifty cents,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you’re buying two dollars and thirty eight cents worth of taffy,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
I immediately knew that a cerebral event had occurred. A glob of taffy had gone the wrong way, and instead of clogging an artery it had gummed up a clump of brain cells.
Within seconds the taffy dissolved, the brain cells got unstuck and Taffy Man said, “Oh! You want change.”
“Yes,” I said.
He handed me my bag of taffy, dropped a few coins into my hand and told us to come again.
A week later, back home, I got out of bed at 2 am-my usual hour for sleeplessness-and padded into the living room. Passing through the kitchen, I saw our little white bag of taffy sitting next to the microwave oven. I plucked a piece out of the bag, went to the sofa, sat down and then unwrapped genuine beach-bought salt water taffy.
As it dissolved in my mouth I found myself thinking about Taffy Man. Was he happy with the decision he had made to sell taffy? I heard him thinking, “I have to stand here all day looking at taffy instead of antiques, toys, games, novelty tee shirts, books, lava lamps and sea shells.”
Being in business must be a source of constant anxiety. It would keep me up at night and I already have a hard time sleeping. Every fear would prey on my mind. What if everyone wakes up one day and says, “You know, I really can’t stand the taste of salt water taffy.” Or what if one day some smart ass scientist with nothing else better to do discovers a link between the consumption of taffy and thyroid cancer? I pictured a crazed woman storming into the store and saying, “My mother came here every day for ten years to buy your taffy and now she’s dead!” Sooner or later an angry visitor would poke his head into the shop and yell, “Why don’t you just shoot people in the throat instead?”
The cherry vanilla I chewed was pretty good. I hoped that Taffy Man was well and prospering. I wanted to see him again and, next time, buy two dollars and fifty cents worth of taffy with two dollar bills and two quarters.
The World's Most Rotten Kid and Other Stories by James Hazard is available on Kindle.