John P Stearns, of Santa Barbara, says $250,000 of intoxicating liquors are sold annually in Santa Barbara. He is the sole owner of wharf property there, and receives $2,000 a year wharfage on whiskey; yet, he counsels people not to use the stuff, but to spend the money building a railroad or educating the children....
~ William Neill Slocum, Common Sense: A Journal of a Wholly New Type, 1874
No matter how well youbelieve you know a place, it seems there is always something new to discover. I made a great discovery last weekend, on Stearns' Wharf.
On Sunday, I took a long walk along Cabrillo Boulevard, next to the beach, past the art show. It was a warm, beautiful winter's day, a practically-springtime type of day. Girls on skates swirled past me on the sidewalk. Boys on bikes breezed by.
Families played in the grass, or lazed on soft blankets beneath the regal row of palm trees. It was a perfect day for the hang gliders who, fitted with colorful wings, dropped from the top of the mountains and floated, silently, all the way to the beach. Dogs played at the edge of the shore and barked merrily at the surf.
I walked out to the very end of the half-mile long wharf, and stood watching people drop their fishing lines into the cool greenblue deep.
I strolled and mingled, and marveled at the sea birds, the sailboats, the sunshine, and the silvery glint of tinsel in a warm ocean breeze. Eventually, I began walking back toward the city.
On my way back to the boulevard, I stopped in front of Mother Stearn's Candy Store, and read the brass plaque mounted on the wall. Although I have walked past this shop hundreds of times, I had never noticed the plaque before.
The plaque tells a local Christmas story, as handed down by the real Mother Stearns who resided in Santa Barbara in 1872. It was her husband, after all, who built this very wharf and named it for himself...The plaque reads as follows:
In October 1872, a peg-legged attorney-turned-lumberman named John Stearns completed his wharf at the foot of State Street. Thereafter, lumber arriving from the north by ship could be unloaded directly onto wagons, rather than being floated ashore on the high tides. Christmas that year, John's wife decided to cook up a batch of her taffy for the wharf workers, who were called stevedores.
Working in the kitchen behind John's office (which later would become "The Harbor Restaurant''), Mother Stearns instructed her daughter Leonora to fetch a pail of water for the candy. As the nearest well was some distance up State Street, the inventive child simply lowered a bucket from the wharf and returned with the water to her mother's kitchen. Mother Stearns unknowingly used the saltwater in the candy. When the delicious but unusual flavor was remarked upon by many of the men, Mother Stearns investigated and Leonora confessed to performing her chore the easy way.
However, candy history had been made! From then on, Mother Stearns drew a pail of seawater for each batch of marvelous "Saltwater Taffy" she created. Today, we still follow Mother Stearns' original recipe for the world's first Saltwater Taffy. Of course, we now use purified water and we add the sea salt. But the flavor remains unchanged.
Just ask any stevedore you meet.
Is it possible that all those Jersey boys - not to mention Wikipedia - are wrong? That saltwater taffy was not invented in the 1880s along the Jersey shore, but was actually first made thanks to a child's sleight of hand a decade earlier, in the 1870s, in southern California? Made here, in Santa Barbara? Could the entire world have been misled, as I was, all these years?
Here are some of the thoughts I have been mulling over for the past couple of days:
- Mother Sterns proudly claimed to have actually made her candy with sea water - sweet, briny, saltwater from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara - which is why the resulting confection is called: saltwater taffy
- The East Coast stories I have read about saltwater taffy deny ever using salt water of any variety in their recipes - they maintain the candy is just called saltwater taffy. Does that even make sense?
- The Stearns' daughter (like most kids), did not want to run half a mile or more back to the shore for spring water every time her mom made some candy - she chose to deliver the most readily available ingredient - ocean saltwater; that's just what a kid would do, isn't it?
- If the stories are true, a peg-legged man and his candy-making wife and their mischievous daughter changed the course of confectionary history....that is so cool.
- The first saltwater taffy ever made was said to have been made as a Christmas gifts for stevedores. I just really like that.
Mother Stean's doesn't ship her candy, so you'll have to come to Santa Barbara in person for a sample of candy made with the same recipe that was used to make the first, true, authentic saltwater taffy -here in Santa Barbara.
If you are still undecided, or maybe you do not care who invented saltwater taffy, but you might like to find a high-quality product that could be shipped to your home, you might visit the website for Shriver's in Ocean City, New Jersey. They have a wide selection that can be ordered online. It will just have to do until you can get to Santa Barbara and taste the homegrown product for yourself.
And to entice you to come visit Stearn's Wharf in person, here is a 360 degree picture of one of the most beautiful spots in Santa Barbara, taken by Bill Heller.