Taffy, Toffee and Tourists
Henry Bradley Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, is now home to the University of Tampa and the Henry B. Plant Museum. “Plant’s Palace,” as it was dubbed, served elaborate meals in its domed dining room. A dinner menu from Sunday, July 25, 1903, lists the desserts for that evening as chocolate soufflé pudding with vanilla sauce, Charlotte Russe, custard pie, nougat ice cream, strawberries à la Française and assorted cake.
Earlier, across the state on January 10, 1888, was opening night of Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the menu included the following assortment of desserts: pudding, soufflé à la vanilla, apple pie, coconut pie, chocolate éclairs, calf’s- foot jelly, assorted cake, fruitcake, vanilla ice cream, fruit, cheese and coffee. The lunch menu on February 26, 1888, offered stewed prunes, apple pie, pumpkin pie, gingersnaps, lady cake, croquettes Parisiennes, assorted cake, pistachio ice cream, fruit, American and foreign cheese, tea and coffee. Across the street from the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College, is the Casa Monica Hotel, which once served Turkish coffee to elite travelers.
From the same corner where the gourmet coffee shop was located, you can now sip a latte from a popular chain coffee shop, as you mull over five hundred years of history in Florida.
The turn of the twentieth century saw changes in our diets, daily lifestyles and vacation destinations. It was the beginning of a luxurious lifestyle for many with telephones, indoor plumbing, electrical appliances, washing machines and automobiles. The introduction of home economics in schools helped to encourage nutrition education, and oranges were being promoted as an excellent source of Vitamin C for a well-balanced breakfast. More affordable hotels were popping up throughout the state; some of those vestiges of old Florida still exist, such as the Historic Seminole Inn in Indiantown. Located about thirty miles northwest of West Palm Beach, this town was planned as a model community and the headquarters for the Seaboard Airline Railroad. The 1930s were an era of Art Deco in Miami and Miami Beach, but it wasn’t until after World War II that Florida really saw a population and tourism boom. Some of the luxury hotels became home to soldiers as they trained for and recovered from World War II. Those same troops spread the word of the paradise that Florida had become. Air conditioning and mosquito control complemented the breezes off the Atlantic Ocean and the rolling surf of the Gulf of Mexico. Roadside attractions were becoming popular. Hula-hoops and drive-in theaters were sources of entertainment. The remnants of many of those hotels, motels and motor inns can still be seen along the back roads and rail lines.
The former family-run Chalet Suzanne, a Swiss-style village built in 1931, was set amidst an orange grove. One drizzly evening, Jack and I watched through the dining room window as a plane slid onto the private runway and then on into Lake Suzanne. Everyone was fine, just a little wet, as they enjoyed their meal. People flew in just to have dinner, which began with honey- and butter-filled, cinnamon sugar–topped, broiled grapefruit.
Bertha Hinshaw provided her recipe for baked grapefruit in Famous Florida Chefs’ Favorite Citrus Recipes, published by the Florida Department of Citrus in 1972. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Modern period spawned the growth of suburbs. Tupperware and Tang were introduced, and then the theme parks of the 1970s changed the look of the state most dramatically.
Twenty years earlier in the 1950s, a candy shop on Daytona Beach got started, called Zeno’s. An old- fashioned taffy-pulling machine proudly displayed in the storefront widow, both on the Daytona Beach and John’s Pass boardwalks, makes it hard to walk past Zeno’s without taking a look. With over one hundred flavors of taffy and other candies, it appears third-generation owner John Zeno Louizes has the same determination to succeed as his father, Zeno Louizes, and great-uncle Thomas Nougaras. They started the business in 1948, bringing their taffy-making skills from Coney Island. Elizabeth Milton, in the 1978 article “How Sweet It Is” for the Daytona Beach News Journal, recounted how the candy maker on Main Street was making eleven flavors of taffy on a burner in the back of the store, using a taffy puller and candy- wrapping machine to finish the sweet treat. With repeat local customers and seasonal tourists, the colorful shop always seems busy.
Zeno’s World Famous Taffy is named in honor of its location on the world’s most famous beaches. Some of the more nontraditional flavors are maple bacon, beer, mojito and red tide. The more traditional include the bestsellers of vanilla, chocolate and fruit punch. Other favorites are banana, cotton candy, mango, honey, Key lime, guava, tangerine, blueberry, coconut, watermelon, birthday cake and strawberry.
For me, toffee is one of the most perfect sweet treats, with its buttery-crunchy-nutty center and chocolate coating. Toffee-to-Go opened in South Tampa over fifteen years ago just down the road from my home. The first time I tasted a sample of their toffee was in a gift shop, and I ended up buying toffee for everyone on my Christmas list. Then I discovered their tiny shop tucked away in a neighborhood office building. I still remember the lady working that day telling me to be sure to sprinkle any leftover toffee on a scoop of ice cream, as it makes a great dessert. Toffee-to-Go has since moved to a larger store and now makes its toffee in a warehouse off-premises. That is because the toffee is so good and in such high demand that it outgrew its first location.
This nationally acclaimed award-winning candy is still made by hand in small batches. It is hard to resist stopping in each time I drive by the place. The variety of flavors includes milk chocolate almond, dark chocolate pecan and white chocolate macadamia nut. Toffee makers Jim and Lisa Schalk follow an old family recipe using farm-fresh butter and premium chocolates to create a toffee that tastes like homemade. Lisa shared with me that they are excited to be expanding the shop to include a dessert room, featuring more favorite Florida sweets and they invited me to a tasting of what’s to come. We tasted toffee desserts and more to compliment the already delicious Toffee-To-Go.