It is spring. That weather again. Blossoms are starting to fire off throughout the neighborhood—the plum trees, the cherries, the fragrant daphnes, short pink tufts of early rhododendrons visible against the gray spring sky and the very green leaves. And the eagles are doing amazing things: high parallel passes in the air, then picking up speed and then dropping, unbelievably accurately, one right after another into the nest hidden high in the neighbor’s Grand Fir.
But as far as seasonal thoughts go, right now I want to discuss jelly beans.
Around this time last year I was in a Bellevue drugstore with my friend Ruth. She was back in this Washington from where she lives now in DC, and just at that moment we were helping out her aging parents by running some errands. While Ruth shopped for the very specific things her mother had on a list, I wandered the drugstore aisles, winding up as if by magic among the seasonal candies. For all kinds of reasons, I find I rarely go through a spring without at some type of Easter candy.
Marshmallow Peeps are a subject unto themselves I won’t go into here; I got involved with them later in life. But standing in the aisle I gazed over choices that definitely were the building blocks of the 1960s baskets of cellophane grass that materialized outside my bedroom door on Easter morning. Foil-wrapped bunnies and small chocolate eggs, speckled blue malt-balls, and jellybeans, which happened to be on sale at that moment. I don’t often buy jellybeans but I thought why not, so I scrutinized types. The mystery flavors that started showing up in the ‘80s hold little allure for me, but the package of Brach’ s claimed they were “Classic” so I picked up a bag, nabbed two packs of peeps, and met Ruth at the checkout counter.
Many people have aversions to Peeps, but jellybeans aren’t strictly a seasonal candy anyway, and they seem to resonate with most of us. I showed Ruth the jellybeans and was delighted when she immediately began discussing the flavors and colors. I was not surprised that Ruth, like any sensible person with a memory of childhood, has strong opinions about which color jellybeans are the best. But I honestly did not expect her choices: she hates the orange ones, is only lukewarm to the yellow, and has always preferred the white. In fact, she was quite enthusiastic about the white ones.
I was stunned. I think the orange ones are just fine—and I think I quite like the yellow ones, for that matter. But the white ones, I said calmly, have all the allure of old moth balls, and I’ve never been sure what they represent. Ruth answered very reasonably that it doesn’t matter what flavor they’re supposed to be, and that green jelly beans are poisonous. We briefly discussed the issue of the purple ones, and I stated that the pink ones really aren’t any recognizable flavor besides pink. We talked about that further: what can they be meant to taste like, cotton candy? Strawberry? Nothing we came up with seemed correct, but Ruth emphasized again, so what? Who eats jellybeans to expect them to taste like anything but jellybeans?
Ruth and I hugged goodbye in the parking lot, and the Peeps and my bag of classic beans and I got into my car, where almost immediately I got into the cellophane. Peeps have that exterior crunch of sugar and the totally strange marshmallow softness, and then disappear about the moment you realize you’re eating one. I put the car in gear. Before I got out of Bellevue, I opened the bag of Classic beans.
First, let me say that if you haven’t eaten the classic flavors in a while, or really any jellybeans, this is a sugar blast almost alarming to the adult palate.
Once in your mouth, a random handful of jellybeans produces the immediate sensation of smooth round things that crush quickly into a sugarfied paste, a mouth blur of sharply sweet flavors identifiable only as ‘candy.’ We are not talking about anything like a natural flavor.
And, almost as immediately, as I merged onto the freeway, I experienced a tension between my eyes that expanded into a light headache, apparently the sugar overloading my circuits.
But truly, these are the food of time-travel. Like Proust and his madeleine, at the first taste of the jellybeans it is suddenly 1962, and like Alice, I’ve shrunk to under three feet tall.
Because for all their good intentions, and they were very good, what were our parents thinking? If your family did such things, Easter is the culmination of forty days of Lent—an observance where most children are urged to give up something they love, like candy, or at least chocolate. So Easter morning arrives, and, depending on your church, you may have been supposed to have an empty stomach before taking communion. But kids having seen their Easter baskets, my parents, anyway, couldn’t completely resist our pleadings, so we were allowed one or two pieces of candy before we left for the service.
Communion was an act I did not participate in until the age of ten, but there I was with the rest of them, empty and starving–except now surging highly refined sugar through my five year old bloodstream as I faced a full High mass: processional and recessional hymns, the whole choir leading the acolytes and priests, one wearing white-gloves swinging the burning censor, bowling us over in the pews with thick waves of the ancient-smelling, dusty, liturgical incense.
Empty body, queasy stomach and a slight tension headache, in the alien dress and little Easter socks and shoes, and even after it was all over when we walked out into the into the damp, possibly cold but still humid Midwestern spring morning, pausing to wish other parishioners a happy Easter before heading home to my grandmother’s brunch food—I still had that strange, floaty feeling crimping in my head, my stomach—you’re a child in new clothes standing beneath the waists of a group of chatting adults and all of a sudden you hate everybody and you really just want to lie down.
I haul myself back through the sugar portal and finish driving home, still trying to understand how such an excellent person as Ruth could prefer the white ones.
Now to be honest, at this point in my life I eat a lot of dark chocolate. But a quick scan of ingredients tells me that gram for gram, jellybeans have three times the sugar content of dark chocolate, and the modern bag of jellybeans even comes with warning of a choking hazard.
After a high-protein meal, I get out the bag and sort through the colors. It is time for a systematic adult analysis.
I lay them out in my own hierarchy: Red, of course, yellow, orange, black and green—then the questionable ones: pink, purple, white. Classic. I pop a red one in my mouth.
These truly are the flavors of the MidCentury. While trying to discern what flavors they actually are supposed to be, I realize it will take more than one bean for assessment, so I lay out another complete row. It might not sound like much but I don’t eat much straight candy at this point in my life, and a part of me looks at them all there on my dining room table, all sixteen beans, and something in my nervous system shudders.
Red is, of course, the best. Maybe cherry? Whatever that red flavor is I’d say it has little in common with any actual fruit. Mostly I’d just say it just tastes ‘red’. Not overly sweet but certainly sweet; good body, nice bits of sour afternotes.
Yellow does have a distinct flavor of lemon candy: very sweet but some tartness to it and a satisfying, gritty texture; definitely the same flavoring as lemon drops, or even lemon furniture polish. What it has in relation to actual lemons is another question, but with this particular jellybean, at least we know what the intention is.
Orange is sort of fascinating. Like the yellow ones, there is a clear memory of other orange candies—orange slices, for instance, those strange jellied wedges coated in granular sugar. Is it anything like an orange? This one may be the closest to an actual fruit flavor, but it’s still a stretch. Which makes me think of Tang. Apparently Tang originated in the late ‘50s, but I remember when it really hit its stride after John Glenn successfully circumnavigated the globe in a space capsule, and it became The Breakfast Drink of Astronauts. (Just thinking about this has me jonesing for a bowl of corn flakes and whole milk)
Ruth is right: green tastes something like sugared Pine-Sol.
Black. Now here is something that truly is Classic. The black jellybean tastes like absolutely nothing else but a black jellybean: you know as soon as you’ve hit one that that’s what you’ve got. Unlike true black licorice, these things are remarkably sweet, with that strange, tarry aftertaste. My stepfather adored them, and sometimes fed them to our poodle.
At the purple jellybean we begin to markedly deviate. Waxy, immediately artificial, and then there it is: the unmistakable artificial ‘grape’ flavor, bearing no genetic markers whatsoever to anything from produce departments. This is the grape of grape soda, of grape Kool-Aid, of Fizzy’s, which I once threw up (it might even have been the grape flavor.) A purple jellybean is totally identifiable when it hits the tastebuds, but really, can you associate it with anything that isn’t the color of crayons?
Pink is another mystery. I still have no idea what flavor it’s supposed to be, but boy, is it ever nostalgic. It’s Pink. Incredibly sweet, with strange hints of teenaged perfume.
After a sip of coffee to clear the palate, I pop in a white one. Again, this is immediately recognizable as just what it’s always been–a sort of mystic, stale pineapple flavor with a hint of wax. (Ruth, really?) I have never been able to understand this one, possibly because it was usually just the bad end of the sugar crash, since I would leave those and the pink ones, and the purple ones, too, now that I think of it, as the low residue of the Easter basket.
Yes, of course, I realize that there are other types and flavors of jelly beans. Famously, in the 1980s, jellybeans were the Food of Presidents, responsible, Ronald Regan claimed, for helping wean himself off smoking a pipe. He was sent probably quite literally tons of Jelly Belly’s—often in simple red, white, and blue themes (‘very cherry, blueberry, and coconut) but he claimed to like all flavors. The Jelly Belly company proudly lists fifty flavors, and claims that the favorite flavor of all jellybeans in the US is buttered popcorn. I refuse to believe it.
These exotic flavors didn’t start showing up until flavorists began to get them right, somewhere in the early ‘80s, and from then on jellybeans got more and more outlandish, even alcoholic. There are cantaloupe and kiwi. Pear (pear? Honestly, who ever wants a pear-flavored jellybean?) I scan the list past jellybeans flavored strawberry daiquiri and pina colada. I ask, why not tequila? That certainly could have helped a few of us through Easter mass.
In the early ‘90s JK Rowlings started her first novel about Harry Potter, with the mention of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, which memorably include earwax and vomit. Certainly not ones to miss an opportunity, the flavorists at Jelly Belly are reproducing Bottie’s beans, and I see flavors include grass, earthworm, and rotten egg–actually, a nice post-Easter medley.
But analyze anything too far and you wind up splitting atoms. A few happy, headache-inducing jellybeans really don’t hurt anyone in the spring, and probably match up nicely with the discomfort of allergies.
The question is whether eating jellybeans is about having some random candy, which the modern flavors constitute for me and which is why I completely leave them alone, or whether it is checking in and reconnecting with very young parts of ourselves, who often remind us that simpler can be better. In fact, can be delightful when you leave it as it is.
Sometimes life offers us really nice moments of return motifs, and two days ago Ruth texts to say she’s back again for another brief visit with her parents. In planning to get together I mention I am writing about jellybeans. I want to give her the opportunity to clarify what cannot be correct in my memory. In return, I receive this:
“White, pink, purple, and pink are best.
Red are acceptable but inferior to the above.
Yellow, orange, and green are not fit to be eaten unless one is starving.
Black are equal to the ‘best’ category, but they’re in their own category because it is forbidden to combine them with any other colors, whereas the four colors in the other “best” category may be combined if the eater wishes.”
I look into the bottom of my bag after all this exhaustive research. What’s left? Purple, pink, and white.
I will take them to Ruth.