OCEAN CITY -- You think freshly caught seafood is the taste of the beach? A bucket of french fries? A bag of caramel popcorn or a slice of boardwalk pizza?
Well, chew on this for a while - a long while, Anna Dolle Bushnell suggests. If you could pick only one - the one taste that, for the longest time, has evoked memories of crashing waves, squawking gulls and sand in your sneakers - it would have to be salt water taffy.
The Dolle family has made it here for almost 100 years - ever since great-grandfather Rudolph's carousel burned down, prompting him to search for a new way to make a living in what, at the time, was a budding beach resort.
Rudolph and his son, also named Rudolph, turned to taffy, buying an existing boardwalk stand whose owner was making and selling the sticky concoction that had originated, most believe, a few years earlier in Atlantic City, N.J.
The second Rudolph passed Dolle's Candyland down to his son, also named Rudolph, and he has all but turned it over to his children, Andrew and Anna.
While there may not be salt water in salt water taffy, there is comfort - to Anna Bushnell, and also to the hundreds of thousands of beachgoers who take home a box to nibble on during the ride, give as a gift or stick in a drawer and keep as a chewy reminder of their days at the seashore.
If nostalgia came in bite-sized pieces, it would be taffy - most likely chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, the original flavors.
Those, and peanut butter, are still the top sellers, but Dolle's offers plenty of others, among them: anise, banana, cinnamon, grape, lemon, lime, orange, peppermint, spearmint - each one capable, like an old song, of triggering personal memories.
Taffy was developed as an alternative to chocolate, which tended not to hold up well under the beach sun, but its history beyond that is a sticky subject - from who made it first, and where, to how "salt water" got added to its name when it contains neither.
It's not so much false advertising as the candymaker's license - jellybeans, in truth, don't contain jelly; Lifesavers can't really save your life; M&M;'s, especially at the beach, can melt in your hands; even Everlasting Gobstoppers aren't eternal.
But that's OK. When it comes to candy, the child in us is unwrapped, the layers of cynicism get peeled off and we're not prone to pick nits - not likely to challenge stories like the one about the boardwalk taffy maker in Atlantic City who in 1883 left his taffy mixture on a table to cool overnight. That night, the tide came in higher than usual and sprayed the mixture with salt water. The next morning, either he, a relative or a customer, depending on which version you hear, remarked on how he now had "salt water taffy."
Somehow the name stuck, but not the practice of adding salt water. In reality, taffy, which is mostly corn syrup and sugar, contains little water and, except for peanut butter flavor, no salt.
"I think it's just a legend," said Bushnell, 27. "I think salt water was just used as a catch phrase."
She spoke loudly, to be heard over the hum of the taffy-making machines in Dolle's manufacturing plant, a small building about a half block from their boardwalk storefront that takes on the smell of whatever flavor is being made that day.
This day was peanut butter.
In the middle of the room, a giant wad of taffy mixture, already cooked and cooled, was hoisted by hand onto the puller, a machine that stretches and tugs it, allowing air to get inside.
Without air, Bushnell said, the taffy "would be so sticky you wouldn't be able to chew it."
Once, taffy makers did this part by hand, slinging the taffy onto a hook on the wall, stretching it out several feet, then slapping it back on the hook and tugging again.
If anyone is still hand-pulling taffy, Bushnell wonders why: "You could make maybe 5 pounds a day that way. We do 1,500 pounds a day, and our machines can pump out 400 pieces a minute, wrapped and ready to go."
From the puller, where the flavoring is added, the taffy goes into a longer machine, known as the batch former, which molds it into a baseball bat-shaped cylinder. The skinnier end of the tube passes through a series of wheels, known as the rope-sizer, which narrow the taffy into a small snakelike roll that is fed into another machine that cuts and wraps.
Besides what is sold at its two Ocean City stores and on the Internet under the Dolle's name, the company makes wholesale generic batches that are sold by other stores.
This year, Dolle's bought Pony Tails, the taffy store operated by the Daisey family in Chincoteague, Va. The families had long known each other, and Rudolph (the third one) used to go down and help the Daiseys when they had trouble with their machines.
The store will keep its old name, and the old recipe will be used when making Pony Tails Taffy.
It wasn't the biggest taffy merger in history. That came in Atlantic City in the early 1980s when one-time rivals, James' and Fralinger's, joined forces.
Fralinger's promoted itself as the original taffy company, bringing the product to Atlantic City in the early 1890s. James' came to Atlantic City later, but claimed to have been making taffy years earlier in the Midwest and took credit for modernizing the industry - developing the pulling machine and changing the recipe to make taffy less likely to pull out teeth and easier to separate from its wrapper.
As one company producing taffy under two names, the dispute over who came first has, like taffy in the sun, softened: "Our history is a story of two families who together established the original salt water taffy we know today," its Web site reads.
The Atlantic City taffy makers have made inroads into what has traditionally been Dolle's territory, opening a store recently in Rehoboth Beach, Del. But that doesn't seem to threaten Bushnell. With the new store in Chincoteague, she said, "I have plenty on my plate now."
Besides, sales of taffy - as old-fashioned and unhip as it may be in today's candy world - have only been increasing.
"We kind of wonder how much of it actually gets eaten," she said. "People keep coming back every year, and taking home four, five, six pounds of taffy. A lot of it is probably given as gifts."
The store also makes and sells a full line of other treats - from caramel apples to truffles - but it is taffy that it, and Ocean City, are known for.
Bushnell's father and grandfather came to Ocean City from Brooklyn, N.Y., at the invitation of the Trimper family, which has been operating Ocean City's amusement park for more than 100 years.
When their carousel burned down, they took over, in 1910, a boardwalk taffy stand whose owner taught them the ins and outs of taffy making.
Bushnell and her brother, Andrew Dolle, both began working in the candy store as children. Bushnell got a degree in anthropology and worked briefly at the Smithsonian Institution, but decided she wanted to stay in Ocean City and run the family business.
Three years ago she married, and 17 months ago she had a son, named Brody, who - if taffy is his future - would be the fifth generation to work there.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Whatever its future, taffy is about the past. If you're 70, it makes you remember the summer of '53; if you're 17, it makes you remember the summer of '04. It's a sweet and chewy, stop-and-sit-a-while, piece of yesterday you can pop in your mouth and, almost magically, be in a safe place.
To see a photo gallery of Ocean City, visit baltimoresun.com/shorestories.