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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.

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.”

“What’s the difference?”

“First of all, it’s more sanitary,” she says. “Second, it appears better. But mostly it’s an old-fashioned thing. People ask all the time, ‘Do you have cotton candy?’ And once they see it’s on the stick, to them it’s better.”

At that moment, as if on cue, two men wearing the uniforms of the Metropolitan Transit Authority appear at the window. “Hi, honey!” they cry out to Flores.

“These are my favorite customers,” she whispers.

“Got any cotton candy?” the pudgier of the two men asks. He could have stepped out of a doughnut ad, 40 going on 14. Asked about Flores’s cotton candy, he ignites.

“She’s the best,” he says. “Plus, she makes it right in front of you. It’s better than those manufacturers. They cram it in the bag, and it’s flatter than an old shirt.”

We discuss various aspects of cotton candy. What’s his favorite color? “Pink,” he says. “Cotton candy should be pink.” Stick or no stick? “Stick,” he says. “It’s traditional, period.” What’s his favorite eating technique? “Grab a whole bunch and let it melt in my mouth.”

“So how long have you been coming here?” I ask.

“Since the ’50s.”

“And now you work right here for the MTA!”

“Yeah, More Trouble Ahead.”

I now realize I’m dealing with a regular Jerry Seinfeld; he hasn’t missed a beat since he appeared at the window. I finally get around to asking his name.

“Alfredo Miranda,” he says. “You have the right to remain silent.”

With Miranda and his buddy gone, the moment has come for me to take the plunge. Flores has quietly spun a half-dozen sticks of cotton candy, deposited them into plastic bags (“with the air inside!” she notes), and hung them from a line above the candied apples. It’s now time to replace the sugar, and while it’s heating she hands me a cone, which I place between my thumb and forefinger, as I’ve seen her do.

When the web first appears, I stick the end of the cone in the middle, spin, dip my arm, put a little body English into it, and before I’ve gotten the first spiral around the cone, I’ve inadvertently let the spun sugar touch the central plate, creating a singing sound and leaving a skid mark of crusted sugar around the outer edge. I quickly pull the cone from the bin and stare: My creation looks more like an old mop than a feather duster. I have failed miserably.

“Not to worry,” Flores chirps, taking my fallen soufflé, quickly wrapping it with a fresh layer of airy poof, and declaring the effort a salvageable success. She winks, sticks the concoction in a bag, and places it on the line. “You’d never think it was messed up,” she says.

And maybe she’s right. But just in case, I take it from the line, offer a dollar, and save some future grown-up boy the disappointment. Making cotton candy, it turns out, isn’t child’s play. Clowns need not apply.