2000s Archive

Spun Heaven

Originally Published February 2000
From the big top to high society, cotton candy is the stuff of dreams.

The mood in The Grill Room at The Four Seasons restaurant is serene, almost sanctified. The French walnut walls are as smooth as butter. The beaded drapes ripple with the quiet shimmer of meringue. This is the Holy See of food in America, a soufflé of power circa the American Century. It’s also home to a little-known example of America’s most overlooked contribution to world cuisine and one of its most enduring contributions to childhood: cotton candy.

“Welcome to The Four Seasons,” says Julian Niccolini, the flamboyant managing partner of the restaurant, as he seats me at the bar. “What would you like to eat?”

Niccolini, a boyish former maître d’ from Tuscany, serves as ringmaster of some of the most coveted real estate in New York City. Earlier, receiving his cell-phone call from Park Avenue, I told Niccolini that as a former circus clown, I had a fascination with cotton candy and was setting out to find the secrets to its continuing appeal. He invited me to lunch.

“Why don’t you order for me,” I say, and he does: a plate of Japanese hamachi (yellowtail) and a pair of Maryland crab cakes. The wine is Chardonnay.

Minutes later the first plate appears. Only it isn’t Japanese hamachi, it’s Portuguese anchovies. I look at the bartender, who looks at me. We shrug. I start to eat and get about halfway through when Niccolini returns and realizes his mistake. He removes the anchovies (retail price: $19.50), whispers something to the waiter, and out pops a plate of Japanese hamachi (retail price: $19). I am just finishing it when out comes another plate, this one a sorry-we-messed-up-please-accept-our-apologies gift, a serving of white-truffle risotto (retail price: $125). I eat it, too. I have now been at the restaurant for less than 20 minutes and already eaten about $164 worth of food. The amount is equivalent to my weekly salary as a clown.

In time the Maryland crab cakes arrive, as does a plate of apple desserts. Two more glasses of wine come and go. And then, without warning, Niccolini returns, carrying a plate about shoulder high. On it sits a giant nest of pure-white cotton candy that looks like the head of a snowman or, more accurately, Barbara Bush’s hair. It is dotted with a handful of bright-pink, sugarcoated violets that resemble buttons on a sweater.

Niccolini places the display in front of me, and suddenly the dozen men who have been seated in stern silence around the bar break into spontaneous applause, and chatter. The plate is passed around the mahogany square, each man tugging a sample and telling a story. It’s as if the cotton candy were a living lava lamp, the best conversation starter I’ve ever seen.

Presently Niccolini leads me into the kitchen, where pastry chef Patrick Lemble sheepishly reveals the source of all this merriment, a dented tin cotton-candy machine that could easily have come from a carnival. The sugar comes from a kitchen-variety one-pound bag. A custom that began 25 years ago to serve children, Lemble notes, has ballooned into a trademark: Up to two dozen tables a night are served the confection. The retail price: $0.

“This is a cathedral of food,” Niccolini explains. “People come here, and they’re not too comfortable. They don’t know what to eat. They don’t know what to drink. So if we can talk to them, if we can entertain them, if we can give them a little security, that’s what we want.”

“And this gives them security?”

“It gives them their childhood back, and everybody wants to be a child again. Our guests have everything—this is the only thing they don’t have.”

And what about Niccolini. Does he eat it for dessert?

“Oh, no,” he says. “Absolutely not. It’s just sugar.”

The following day I head toward New York City’s opposite extreme, the epicenter of fun, Coney Island. I have a date to meet a 50-year veteran of the confection world whose store has been serving cotton candy for more than half its history.

That history, I am learning, has been largely shrouded in mystery—and propaganda. I first became interested in the subject during my time in the circus, when I discovered that many classic American foods got their start in the world of popular entertainment. In one story, Pete Conklin, a legendary clown of the 1850s, quit the Mabie Circus one day in Texas over a pay dispute, bought two mules, a covered wagon, sugar, tartaric acid, and some lemons, and began trailing the big top, selling lemonade to parched circusgoers. One day Conklin ran out of water and frantically began searching the lot, eventually coming upon a tub of water in which the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson was soaking her red tights. Desperate, Conklin added his usual ingredients and unknowingly invented the Champagne of circus drinks: pink lemonade.

A similar story surrounds the invention of cotton candy. The Dictionary of American Food and Drink reports that the item originated in 1900 at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, when snack vendor Thomas Patton began experimenting with the long-common process of boiling sugar to a caramelized state, then forming long threads of it with a fork. Patton’s genius, according to the entry, was to heat the sugar on a gas-fired rotating plate, creating a cottony floss.

As someone with experience in circus truth-spinning, I smelled a fake a mile away. The story reeked of being fabricated by a Ringling flack, not least because the Ringling Bros. show didn’t merge with the Barnum & Bailey show until 1919.

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