As we age, our millions of memories begin to leave us. They don’t go all at once in some instant disappearing act. Each one we lose erodes slowly, first fading around its edges, then getting fuzzier as colors go gray and images blur until the haze grows and thickens and eventually consumes what was once a sharp, vibrant snapshot of time saved in our minds.
But there are some recollections that survive this process, and often, they’re not the most important moments in our lives. One of my childhood memories that remains as detailed and clear as ever is my first taste of saltwater taffy. I was at the state fair, a fall ritual for my family when we lived in Jackson, Mississippi. My dad opened the brown paper sack he’d accepted from a man leaning out the open window of a trailer covered in paintings of pink cotton candy, dancing peanuts, and red-and-white striped boxes overflowing with popcorn. He reached in and produced a small, creamy white chunk of something wrapped in wax paper. He twisted the ends of the wrapping, peeled free the bite-sized blob and handed it to me. I ate it without hesitation. It was chewy and sweet with a hint of vanilla and salt that rose in the back of my mouth and kicked my salivary glands into high gear.
Today, plain vanilla saltwater taffy (not the flavored stuff) is the treat that tops my long list of candy favorites, and a large part of its appeal—at least for me—is its rarity. You won’t find it in the local grocery store. Gas stations don’t have it. Your best bet for finding saltwater taffy is, as it was when I first discovered it, your nearest traveling fair. After that initial taste, it became the No. 1 thing I was after on every trip to the fair. Now, as an adult, the prospect of procuring a brown paper bag full of saltwater taffy is worth the price of fair admission all by itself.
Since making Montgomery, Alabama, my home, the Alabama National Fair held each autumn has been my fair of choice, due mainly to proximity, but it’s also a “fair” representation of your average fair. I love strolling around and letting the fairgrounds fill up my senses. Chattering and squealing kids dragging stuffed animals bigger than them through the dust. Rumbling and screeching roller coaster cars. Full-grown adults screaming their lungs out on the Tilt-A-Whirl. The scent of fried dough and sautéed sausages and boiled peanuts and spun sugar floating on a fall breeze. A rainbow of neon lights glowing against a navy blue night sky.
I love it all. The girth and weight of the giant vegetables never cease to amaze. The multi-colored patchwork quilts make me think of my grandma. I like the food (the Highland Men’s Garden Club’s camp stew is always on point). I like watching kids throw ping pong balls at goldfish. I actually enjoy the obnoxious and mildly aggressive midway hawkers trying to convince me to play their games or let them guess my weight. And I love the livestock exhibits (or more accurately I love watching people who made the mistake of wearing nice shoes to the fair walk through the exhibit hall on tip toe).
For years, I knew that once I finished checking out the pigs (piglets too, if you’re lucky), burly Brahma bulls and truly ridiculous looking chickens (the breeds that look like they’re having a perpetually bad hair day), I’d end up at the stand selling saltwater taffy. Then it was back to the car and back home, unwrapping and eating (and loosening my two cavity fillings) all the way.
But a few years back, a distressing thing occurred. After the camp stew (and some cotton candy), some people-watching, and some cow-watching, there was no saltwater taffy to be found. Whoever had been making and selling the item that frankly made my autumn complete was no longer there. And they haven’t been there since. I’m sure. I’ve asked. Every year I pester the nice ladies at the information booth with questions. “Is there saltwater taffy anywhere on the fairgrounds this year?” And “Do you know why the taffy people stopped coming?”
Alas, I’ve never discovered what made the taffy vendor leave or if they’re coming back. But I’ll be back at the Alabama National Fair every year. I’ll be searching for taffy for sure, but I’ll be enjoying everything else this harbinger of fall has to offer too.
SEE MORE “NOTES FROM THE FAIR” PHOTOS HERE