It is the staple food of nostalgia. It’s synonymous with childhood laughter and the days of carefree wonder. And unlike most candy aisle confections, cotton candy is indelibly linked to carnivals, the circus, and any other spectacle designed to fire the imagination of children.
The first appearance by cotton candy occurred in Italy in the 1400s. As a tasty dessert, Italians would use a fork to drape strings of melted sugar on top of an upside-down bowl. This trend continued throughout Europe and was especially employed at certain holidays. Spun sugar was used to make Easter eggs or decorative webbing. Because the process required so much skill, it was a fairly rare practice and one enjoyed almost uniquely by the wealthy.
A little over one hundred years ago, about 1897, the common mythology credits a pair of Nashville candy makers named William Morrison and John C. Wharton with the invention of a most extraordinary machine that would change fairgrounds and amusement parks forever. By melting sugar into a centrifuge and then “spinning” it through a fine screen, the sugar would take on a wispy sort of texture. After that, it was simply a matter of collecting the spun sugar onto a stick or cone. Others have claimed credit for inventing the process of spinning sugar, including a Louisiana dentist, of all things.
But it was Morrison and Wharton’s “fairy floss” that debuted at the St. Louis World’s Fair for two bits a box (half the price of admission). 68, 655 boxes later, the candy makers had hauled in some $17, 163.75 over the course of the fair, which adjusted for inflation would amount to over $350,000 by today’s standards.
But money and mythology aside, cotton candy is famous for one reason. It’s cotton candy! It’s proof that the best things in life really are the simple things. It’s the taste of childhood fantasy. It’s the taste of wandering the fairway and gazing up at the Ferris Wheel. It’s the taste of shooting a water pistol into a clown’s mouth and winning a stuffed elephant. It’s the taste of tilt-a-whirls, tea cups, and bumper cars. It’s the taste of one net, three rings, and acrobats spiraling through the air.
“But, it’s just sugar!” say the detractors.
No. Sugar fades. This is imagination. It’s memory. It’s happiness. And that’s a taste that never fades.
If you have fond memories of eating cotton candy as a kid, maybe at the state fair or local carnival, we’d love to hear about it in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this sugary staple of childhood.