The Infinite Perfection of Taffy Pulling

Watching taffy being made is not only one of the great joys of summer — it’s also one of the great joys of mathematics.
176824264

176824264

Photo by: mg7 ©mg7

mg7, mg7

Taking a break from the sun, the sand and the squeals of wave-jumping children to pad over to the saltwater-taffy “shoppe” and watch the complex apparatus do its pully-twisty thing is, truly, one of the great joys of summer.

It also turns out to be one of the great joys of mathematics. In fact, a professor of fluid dynamics at the University of Wisconsin, Jean-Luc Thiffeault, whose field of study mixes mathematics and physics like the air and sugar that are taffy’s chief ingredients, has written an entire research paper — “A mathematical history of taffy pullers” — about the mathematical efficiency of taffy-making machines and the innovations over the years.

In a report on Thiffeault’s research, the Washington Post highlights some interesting tidbits about taffy’s history to chew on. Among them:

1: All that stretching and pulling and whiz-banging is not just show: Successful taffy making truly depends on it to get air into the mix and achieve its quintessentially taffyish texture.

2: In the olden days, back before the turn of the 20th century, all the pulling and twisting was done by hand, which was labor-intensive, unhygienic and, frankly, not terribly appetizing.

3: In the early 20th century, a flurry of taffy-minded inventors came up with mechanical inventions to improve the process and patented them.

4: One early model — the Nitz taffy puller, patented in 1918 — which used three rods to stretch, fold and loop the taffy, precisely mirrors a shape that mathematicians have been studying since the early 1970s. (Thiffeault was super-excited when he made the discovery — the Washington Post calls it a “Eureka moment.”)

5: Many other taffy-machine models have used more than three rods to do the business of stretching and pulling, but Thiffeault says they pretty much all accomplished the same thing, taffywise.

6: The most-common model in use today uses four rods that spin, twist and pull the taffy in an infinite motion.

7: Thiffeault created a puller that uses six rods, contending that it is “more mathematically perfect,” as the Post puts it, than the usual four-rod puller. But he says that doesn’t mean that, from an engineering standpoint, it’s necessarily superior. So don’t expect big changes in the taffy world as a result.

Fascinating. And just the sort of thing that could put a person in the mood for taffy. Here’s a recipe to try — no fancy machine needed.

Photo courtesy of iStock

Keep Reading

Next Up

An Infinite Number of Ways to Celebrate Pi(e) Day

No matter if you love or hate math, indulge in Food Network's sweet and savory pie recipes in honor of Pi(e) Day.

Picnic Perfection

Get Melissa d'Arabian's four tips for picnic perfection on FN Dish.

Fried to Perfection: The Top 5 Fried Chicken Dishes in the Nation — Vote for Your Favorite

Food Network’s Sunny Anderson and Geoffrey Zakarian reveal the best fried chicken dishes in the nation on Top 5 Restaurants.

Easy, Cheesy Pull-Apart Pizza Breads

These cheesy, pull-apart pizza breads are just as addictive as they are easy to make. Prepare a few different variations using your favorite sauces, cheeses and fillings.

Step-by-Step Pulled Pork — Weekend Cookout

Make traditional barbecue pulled pork sandwiches at home using Pat and Gina Neely's step-by-step photos and top-rated recipe from Food Network Magazine.