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Culinary Curiosities: The History of Jelly Beans

I’ll admit I’ve never been much of a fan of jelly beans, but it’s hard to resist their brighter-than-nature colors and that just-right amount of chew. In the weeks leading up to Easter manufacturers turn out about 16 billion of the glossy candies, according to the National Confectioners Association. But they’re not just for the Easter bunny anymore: There’s a color and a flavor for nearly every celebration imaginable.

Who came up with this most American candy icon? No one knows for sure, but some food historians think jelly beans may have borrowed from two older sweets: Turkish Delight, a soft, chewy candy dusted in powdered sugar, and Jordan Almonds, a French delicacy with a hard candy shell. Jelly beans are made not from jelly, precisely, but from sugar, corn syrup and starch. The ingredients are cooked into a slurry and poured into cornstarch trays molded into the signature shape. Once molded candies have cooled they’re ready for a process called “panning.” Continually rotating drums churn the beans while sugar and flavorings are slowly added, forming an even, thin, hard shell over each piece. A layer of confectioner’s glaze, a final polishing, and the jelly beans are ready to eat. It can take from six to 21 days to complete the process.

The first jelly beans were probably made somewhere in America in the 1800s. In 1861, Boston candy-maker William Schrafft suggested that families send the sturdy and portable treat to Union Soldiers in the Civil War as a morale booster. By the early 1900s, jelly beans were a popular penny candy, the first candy to be sold by weight rather than by piece, at about 9 cents a pound. By the 1930s, the candies were linked to the Easter holidays but continued to appeal to the nation’s sweet tooth throughout the Depression and during World War II, when chocolate was earmarked for soldiers’ care packages and scarce on the homefront.

It’s possible that jelly beans could have faded into food history, but in the 1970s they got a boost from an unexpected ally: then-governor of California, Ronald Reagan. He turned to them into a smoking-cessation aid. The Herman Goelitz Candy Company of Oakland, California, sent regular supplies to his office. In 1976, the Goelitz company introduced a smaller bean with added flavoring in the gooey center—previously only the hard shell was flavored—called Goelitz’s Mini Gourmet Jelly Beans. Reagan switched to this new product, which was soon rebranded as Jelly Belly. Jelly Belly supplied 3-and-a-half tons of red, white and blue candies for President Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. Jelly Belly had to boost production to keep up with soaring demand. In 1976 they debuted eight flavors:  grape, root beer, cherry, licorice (Reagan’s favorite), green apple, lemon, tangerine and cream soda. In the 1980s they had about 40 flavors and today they produce hundreds, including the love-it-or-hate-it buttered popcorn. There are other well-established jelly bean brands, but Jelly Belly continues to innovate. Are you an athlete? Try their Sports Beans to boost your electrolytes. Need a post-workout treat? Try their organic smoothie flavored beans. Love Harry Potter? Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans are for you, with flavors like earthworm, dirt and earwax. The Beanboozled challenge takes the boundary-busting flavors even further. Is that pretty orange bean peach flavor … or barf?  Is that speckled one tutti-fruitti … or stinky socks?  

If you don’t like the taste of jelly beans, you can always appreciate jelly bean art. That’s right: The brightly hued candies are the preferred medium for artists, including Peter Rocha, whose famous jelly bean portrait of the 40th president hangs in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. When Rocha died in 2004, his nephew, Roger Rocha, continued his candy-as-art legacy. Kristen Cummings also works in jelly beans and was hired as an artist in residence for Jelly Belly in 2012. Her work, including candy-mosaic reproductions of the Mona Lisa, American Gothic, and others, are proudly displayed at Jelly Belly headquarters.  

Jelly bean renderings of luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Elvis are compelling. But I wonder what the R&D department at Jelly Belly is working on now. Taco flavor?  Kale?  Kimchee? 

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