Behind the bean scene
When it comes to candy, if it’s not dark chocolate, I usually can’t be bothered. Lollipops, cotton candy and marshmallows seem base in comparison, like Boone’s Farm next to vintage port, but the Jelly Belly always gives me pause. Those beans may not be chocolate, but they’re intriguingly intense. What kind of confection boasts flavors like jalapeño, roasted garlic, lawn clippings, and the Harry Potter-inspired vomit, ear wax and booger varieties? Who dares channel nature’s perfect food—buttered popcorn—into tiny nuggets of concentrated deliciousness?
So strong was my curiosity that I cancelled a dentist appointment last Wednesday (Oh, the irony!) and joined visiting relatives on a trip to the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield. I wasn’t the only one with questions: “How do they know what a booger tastes like?” my cousin asked on the drive to Fairfield.
“Someone had to eat one,” my mom replied matter of factly, “for science.”
Outside the Jelly Belly visitor center, we paused for photos at the knee of a giant yellow Belly wearing an Uncle Sam hat. His inflated girth swayed slightly in the storm as outdoor speakers broadcast “Rock the Casbah.”
Inside, the Clash segued to John Lennon, but the retro oil-crisis vibe remained in the form of a large portrait of Ronald Reagan made entirely out of Jelly Bellies. I blinked him away like a bad memory and took in the rest of the scene. Stuffed Jelly Bellies rode hot-air balloons to a ceiling strung with huge pieces of candy. There was a Jelly Belly sample bar, an ice-cream counter, a chocolate-making kitchen, a candy shop. Candy Land was real!
As we lined up for the next tour, I noticed another Reagan portrait beaming from the opposite wall. The words “Peace through strength” ran underneath his visage in shiny bean letters, adding an Orwellian vibe to my sweet euphoria. One Reagan portrait could be dismissed as a kooky piece of Americana, but two?
Make that four. Less than 10 minutes into the tour, I’d counted four portraits of Ronnie—three solo and one with Nancy. Before I could get too Big Brother about it, his ubiquity was explained by a video presentation. Jelly Bellies were invented in 1976, when a Los Angeles candy distributor dared the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. (the artists currently known as Jelly Belly) to create a gourmet jelly bean using natural flavors. At that point, Reagan was already known for his jelly-bean cravings, so the company shipped him some of the new product and the rest was history. Reagan started every meeting by passing around a bowl, a tradition he continued throughout his presidency. Jelly Belly created the blueberry flavor especially for Reagan’s presidential inauguration and supplied the White House with 12 tons of the candy during his presidency. According to our tour guide, this demand put the Jelly Belly factory 77 weeks behind its shipping schedule.
“That’s just another thing Reagan fucked up while he was in office,” my mom whispered into my ear. I giggled, partly from the surprise of hearing my mother drop the f-bomb in a family atmosphere and partly because the intoxicating smell of fruit made me giddy.
We walked on catwalks over the factory, past crates of curing Jelly Bellies, Jelly Bellies on conveyor belts, Jelly Bellies in giant metal tumblers acquiring their shiny shells, and Jelly Bellies piled like jewels in metal carts.
By tour’s end, I wanted a Jelly Belly like I never had in my life. I hustled over to the sample bar, where a patient young woman handed out beans one at a time with a pair of tongs. I started with roasted garlic, which my mom claimed she could smell on my breath from several feet away. As I chewed the pungent candy, a woman next to me surveyed the flavor offerings. “Roasted garlic?” she read. “Eeew. That’s nasty!”
Embarrassed, I held my breath and pointed toward pomegranate, the company’s newest flavor. And I kept pointing and chewing, pointing and chewing, until it was time to go home. I never even made it to the chocolate kitchen.