2000s Archive

Spun Heaven

continued (page 2 of 3)

The truth may be less romantic, but it is no less appealing. In 1897 William Morrison and John C. Wharton, candymakers in Nashville, invented the world’s first electric machine that allowed crystallized sugar to be poured onto a heated spinning plate, then pushed by centrifugal force through a series of tiny holes.

In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, Morrison and Wharton sold the product, then known as “fairy floss,” in chipped-wood boxes for 25 cents a serving. Though the price was half the admission of the fair itself, they sold 68,655 boxes. The same fair also saw the world’s first ice-cream cone. (The cone for holding cotton candy came along later.)

Early spun-sugar machines (the term cotton candy first came into use in the 1920s) were notoriously unreliable. They vibrated relentlessly and often broke down. The introduction of spring bases in 1949 eased the process, and today the company that introduced that breakthrough, Gold Medal Products of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactures almost 100 percent of all cotton-candy machines in the country. Gold Medal made the machine at The Four Seasons as well as the one used at Philip’s Confections, “Coney Island’s Oldest Candy Shop,” serving New Yorkers since 1917.

Philip’s Confections is one of those places you never quite realize still exist—until you stumble upon them. It’s a tiny storefront, no bigger than a large tollbooth, that sits underneath an elevated subway track, just across the street from the beachside strip of roller coasters and pinball joints that make up the faded glory zone of Coney Island.

The stand is shaped like an iron, with two customer windows alongside the angled part and a small work area along the base. Stepping through the back door at dusk, I am greeted by John Dorman, the owner. Even with just two people in it, the room is crowded. On the walls are faded black-and-white photographs and in the windows are several layers of crowded trays that look as if they could have appeared in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: candied apples, caramel apples, chocolate pudding, cherry Jell-O, charlotte russes, lollipops the size of Ping-Pong paddles, lollipops the size of tennis rackets, coconut-covered marshmallows, chocolate-covered strawberries, taffy, peanut brittle, fudge, fudge with nuts, fudge with marshmallows, coconut cream bars, and, hanging from the ceiling, a dozen bags of pink cotton candy that bring to mind poofy bedroom slippers that Elizabeth Taylor might wear around her boudoir.

The only thing missing is plain chocolate bars. “We can’t make them until the winter,” Dorman says. “We don’t have AC in here.”

Dorman, born in 1930, has been working at this candy store since 1947, when he got a job selling popcorn at 15 cents a bag. He bought the store in 1952.

So why do people like candy? I ask him.

He seems flabbergasted. “Why do people like sex?” he says. “Because it’s nice.”

In recent years Dorman has passed on the cotton-candy beat to his deputy, Emily Flores. She’s a jolly woman, in her early 30s, with wavy hair and an easy smile, who can safely be described as a cotton-candy artiste, the David Bouley of the boardwalk. Watching her prepare for her pas de deux with the centrifuge is like watching a prima ballerina go through warm-up exercises—except, in her case, she rarely takes more than two steps in any direction since she would inevitably trip over a cart of caramel corn.

Her first task is to prepare the sugar. To say that sugar is the most important ingredient in cotton candy is to understate a bit. Sugar is the only ingredient. But to stop there is to miss the ne plus ultra of cotton candy: its color. White cotton candy may be fine for New York gourmands, but it can hardly compete with the neon rainbow of the big top. Philip’s Confections sells cotton candy in an array of flavored colors: cherry red, raspberry blue, grape purple, mint green, lemon yellow, and orange. The instructions say to add one to two tablespoons of the colored flavoring, called Flossine, for every ten pounds of sugar, but Flores no longer bothers to measure.

“We just pour it in,” she says, sprinkling some cherry red into a 30-pound bucket of sugar and mixing heartily with a metal scoop.

With the sugar prepared, Flores turns on the machine, a beat-up 15-year-old veteran that she treats with a mixture of respect and exasperation, sort of like an old plow horse. “Sometimes she takes time to warm up,” Flores says, sighing.

A few minutes later the machine is ready, and Flores takes a scoopful of sugar and pours it into the rotating eye, which is about two inches in diameter. Ten seconds pass, then 20. Nothing happens. At half a minute a gentle tinkling ensues as the sugar begins to splatter against the outside of the tin receiving bin. Within seconds, an almost invisible cobweb of pink fiber begins to collect in the basin. At a minute, the web appears thick enough to catch a fly ball.

Now comes the moment that separates the hobbyists from the experts, the cable-access cotton-candy chefs from those on network TV. At The Four Seasons, the chef reached into the bin and molded the cotton candy by hand onto a plate. Flores reaches for a stick—actually more of a thin paper cone—and begins to twist it clockwise, collecting the candy in an even spiral that quickly takes on the shape of a feather duster.

“Other people around here use their hands,” she says, dismissively. “We prefer sticks.”

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