FRESH YARN presents:

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.

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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