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America the Beantiful
By Eleanor Bayne Johnson

This is not a dream. And it is not The Twilight Zone. If anything, it is the Zone of Unending Noonday Glare. This is the Jelly Belly jellybean factory, in Fairfield, California.

Impossibly large jellybeans dangle half-tantalizingly, half-horrifyingly from the ceiling. They show me back to myself, small, shiny, and possessed of an anthill of a nose. But I cannot bask in their reflective, plastic glory for any length of time, imperiled as I am by legions of swarming, sugar-amped children. Thinking back to my post-Protestant New York upbringing, I seethe with jealousy of native Californians.

I have always suspected that, throughout the 1980s, shielded from perma-sun by the fragrant blossoms of orange trees, California children breakfasted outdoors on dry Tang stirred into imported Nutella. I imagine that they drank half-and-half, titrated with horchata for fiber, and listened to old Beach Boys cassettes blaring from nearby car stereos. Meanwhile, in Sleepy Hollow, NY, I had pounded All Bran drenched to uniform flaccidity in nonfat milk, and faked reading the Wall Street Journal to impress my father, while secretly praying for another measly, wet snowstorm to keep me home from school. Naturally, Californians felt entirely at home at the Jelly Belly factory -- organically entitled to all its wonders -- whereas I crept around like a kid in a porn shop, touching everything with impassioned trepidation.

After all, it might be alarmed, and pre-programmed to telegraph my whereabouts to my Methodist grandfather in New Mexico. The news of my moral turpitude would cause his surgeon-hand to slip, blinding an old woman who had gone in for a "routine cataract removal". But here I am, twenty-six years old, flipping the bird to my post-Protestant paranoiac self, pawing jellybeans and manhandling memorabilia meant for toddlers. Twelve-step programs, my ass: give me a good dose of factory culture in the searching sunlight of Bay Area consumerism, and I'll show you an improvement in neurosis.

Skulking rapturously through the visitor center, I am assaulted by literature: polyglot brochures containing Jelly Belly "menus" -- recipes specifying the bean combinations that produce uncanny culinary simulacra in the mouth. Once I have learned the Ways of the Force by practicing with my menu-guide, I may feel confident enough to strike out on my own. I think of yoking together a Chocolate Pudding-Peanut Butter-Top Banana-Toasted Marshmallow team, in an effort to recreate my favorite childhood sandwich: the Nutella-Banana-Fluffernutter. To round out my atavistic fantasy, I resolve to write a customer feedback card requesting that the Jelly Belly company beanize Whole Wheat Toast.

But I am distracted from my consumer-advocacy ruminatings by the Jelly Belly Sampling Bar. Tiny, labeled Lucite drawers glisten before me, manned by cheery tong-armed workers. I can taste flavors ranging from the classic Very Cherry all the way to the once-outrageous but now-canonical Buttered Popcorn. Shyly, I acquaint myself with the new beans on the block: Mango, Plum, and, improbably enough, Roasted Garlic. I also sample the new Cinnamon Toast, which tastes so lifelike that I blush at my earlier resolve to lobby for something as pedestrian as Whole Wheat Toast. I must unlearn what I have learned.

Each bean I ask for is dispensed into my suddenly childlike and trembling hand, which elicits from the server a warmly infantilizing smile. But there is no room for greed at the Jelly Belly Factory. Every child (of every age) is limited to a reasonable number of samples. We don't want to run out of anyone's favorite flavor, particularly considering the distances some children travel to come to this factory. Or so I am told, when denied my sixth bean. I smile an overconfident "Of course not" to the Bean Drawerette, thinking, there it goes: the wire to Grandpa. "Your Granddaughter is a glutton. Come pick her up."

But I am quickly reassured that gelatinacious gluttony is, in fact, perfectly legitimate, and that my chastising emanated from the Drawerette's need to set boundaries. Around the corner from the Bean-Bar, it is possible to purchase two-pound bags of Belly Flops -- beans which, I presume, no discerning child could be expected to eat. These are the outcasts, the untouchables: they are Siamese beans, beans too large or too small, and beans with Jelly Belly logo skewed. What these beans lack in aesthetics, however, they more than compensate for in cost effectiveness. These bags go for a mere eight dollars apiece. Or, in violation of all known rules of multiplication, five bags for fifteen. Denied that sixth, precious, singular Bean-Bar sample -- which I know would have introduced me to that flavor, the flavor, the one I have unwittingly craved since Kindergarten, the taste that heals all wounds and restores me to full Proustian recall -- I find consolation in superfluity.

Weighed down now by over four kilos of sweet nothings, I begin to notice the factory, as it were, between the beans. To the left of the front door I recognize a huge tableau of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He smiles beneficently, comprised of thousands of jellybeans. This surely cannot be the same man who starred in Pumping Iron. Is the sugar glazing my eyeballs? Is there truly a hypertrophic bean mosaic of the Governator before me? There is. And, furthermore, Arnold is not alone: bean-portraits of other American Icons loom large and beatifically sweetened overhead. Chief among them is the late Ronald Reagan, whose affection for Jelly Bellys is famous among adoring and empathetic Republicans, and infamous among cynical and sugar-starved left-wingers. From his glossily pointillist visage, my eyes track across the room to a huge letter -- probably ten-by-ten feet, printed, framed and mounted -- that he wrote to the Jelly Belly Factory, commending a gustatory job well done.

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