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America the Beantiful
By Eleanor Bayne Johnson

And rightly so. These confections, it occurs to me, are the foods of American diplomacy itself, reminding nations from first world to rogue that Americans are still spry and spirited. (On reflection, did I not see them passed around in iced bowls at Reykjavik?) After all, there is nothing offensive in them (no fat, no cholesterol) and there is a flavor for everyone. They represent every color of the rainbow, without any suggestion that Buttered Popcorn, in all its alabaster glory, might somehow be superior say, to Cappuccino or Café Latte. Jelly Bellys are all embracing, an infinitude of Statuettes of Liberty, calling out to the disenfranchised of the world, those living unconsoled by McDonalds (also a native Californian commodity).

The programmatic Americanness of the place seeps gaudily from the packages of red, white, and blue beans that decorate the walls. Further, Jelly Belly baseball caps remind of a shared national pass-time, and Jelly Belly propeller-beanies accompany them, evoking a 1950s innocence that brings sweet nostalgic tears even to my most postmodern eyes. This building has done it. It has condensed patriotism and nation into a low-impact, four-calorie bean. And I am so moved I am shaking. Although that could be the sugar-shock.

Indeed, the only possible impolitic aspect of the scene -- its radical unAtkinsness -- is quietly addressed in the center of the main shop by a few racks of sugar-free Jelly Bellys. They, like so many Americans, are now sweetened with Splenda. The caloric content per bean plummets from a whopping four to a mere two and a half, so that diabetics and dieters the nation over can eat almost twice as many as anyone else. Mr. Jelly Belly has bowed to the pressure of an overweight nation's collective taste buds clamoring in desperate unison for lively taste uncompromised by the lockdown on carbs.

Having seen the store and its myriad confectional wonders, I embark on the factory tour. Anticipating the commencement of an Oompa-Loompa song, I am disappointed to find myself escorted by a full-sized and entirely unrhyming tour guide. I walk purposively with a group of bean-aficionados, topped by Jelly Belly paper hats, through a winding series of enclosed, suspended walkways, from which I see the amazing mechanical elegance of the factory floor. There are untold thousands of beans, in various stages of sucrose (or Sucralose) completion. Stacked in trays, rotating in vast drums, or drowning in luminous color-washes, these beans dance capitalism to piped-in American pop music. We learn in great detail about the gestation of Jelly Bellys, beginning with an indistinct-looking embryonic sugar-slurry center and finishing with the inevitable segregating of Flops from true Jelly Bellys. I am, it must be said, impressed.

Over 27 thousand beans receive a label per minute. (Might not the phrase "Jelly Belly" be the most frequently written two-letter collocation in the English language? A question for my next tour.) And No Bean is Left Behind; every stage of production is tightly monitored and controlled for quality. Human checkers supplement the mechanical sifters, trawling for dud beans at the bittersweet end of the line -- a line through which three million beans pass per day. Assuming the verity of supply and demand, I conclude that the human race consumes at least that many. Twelve million lip-smackingly empty calories circulate worldwide as we pirouette giddily through the indifferent cosmos.

Further along on the tour is the art gallery, containing yet more bean portraits, as well as a large television screen, which depicts their genesis. Like a deranged Michelangelo, one man -- the Jelly Belly Bean Artist -- paints a large canvas with the image to be depicted, then uses chopsticks to set color-coded beans into a thin layer of glue. The meticulousness of his loving labor is awe-inspiring and eerily soothing. It is good to know that this man has found a place for himself in the world. Also, it must be said, the portraits are perfectly recognizable, and mesmerizing. They contain tens of thousands of individual beans, each securely nestled among its peers. I say securely; apparently, one picture, which hung at the 1989 San Francisco World Series, lost not one single Jelly Belly during the earthquake.

After I receive my complimentary snack packs of Jelly Bellys and JBz (a new product line of gourmet M & M-like chocolates), I notice that the tour guide seems genuinely to enjoy her work. I ask her if this is so, and she affirms eagerly that it is. Again, I feel jealous. She gets to interact with people all day long, to laugh at slightly demented-acting children, while I spend my afternoons holed up with semi-legible manuscripts that far pre-date the printing press, doggedly pursuing the ever-fleeing specter of my dissertation.

It would be a fun job, I think, to be surrounded by happy families, reveling in the weirdly comforting recognition that this place -- at once a palace of artisanship and a fortress of mechanized production and reproduction -- exists. That the Goelitz family and an entrepreneur named Dan Klein had, in the late 1970s, stepped boldly into the Limbo of the Possible to realize a gourmet penny candy, a gourmet jellybean. We did not know we needed such a thing, but fortunately for the understimulated child in us East Coast ex-pats, pushed to the margins of the continent by our indefatigable need to fake-read the newspaper, they did.

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