From Memorial Day until Labor Day, communities are decorated with festive buntings, flags, and patriotic items. At community festivals and backyard picnics across the nation, red, white, and blue dominate the color scheme. Some hostesses even go as far as to serve red, white and blue foods to coordinate with the tablecloths. Who can resist a white cake trimmed with red and blue icing, red gelatin salads, red beets, white potatoes, and other colorful culinary delights? During the summer months, even candy turns red, white, and blue – and we can thank President Ronald Reagan for making “blue” food cool.
When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he needed a snack to help him overcome a pipe smoking habit. He sought something low in fat, not too high in calories, and something that had enough flavor to help him beat the cravings. He found the perfect snack in jelly beans. At first, any jelly bean would do, but that changed in 1976 with the creation of Jelly Belly jelly beans.
The company responsible for these flavorful candy beans began in the post-Civil War era at Belleville, Illinois, when Gustav Goelitz bought an ice cream and candy store. His brother Albert would load sweet treats into a wagon and sell them in nearby communities. Within a few years, the Goelitz name was associated with the finest candies, and future generations of the family expanded the company into the Herman Goelitz Candy Company. During the Great Depression, chocolate was scarce, and jelly beans were a favorite “penny candy” among children and adults.
At first when candy companies began to mass produce the sugary treat, it was a colorful pectin bean with little, if any flavor. In 1976, a Los Angeles candy distributor had an idea that would change jelly beans manufacturing and distribution – make a jelly bean with natural flavors. He contacted the H. G. Candy Company and the Jelly Belly was born.
Soon, the Jelly Belly became Ronald Reagan’s favorite candy and he kept a jar of them on his desk in the governor’s office. When Regan was elected president, arrangements were made for Jelly Bellies to be served at inaugural festivities. There was only one problem. The color scheme for the inaugural was red, white, and blue. There were red, yellow, white, orange, and black Jelly Bellies, but there was not a blue one. Recipes were tested and the blueberry Jelly Belly was developed specifically for Reagan’s inauguration. A total of 3 ½ tons of red, white, and blue Jelly Bellies were shipped to Washington, D.C. for the festivities. With roughly 800,000 candies per ton, that is 2,800,000 Jelly Belly beans.
During the Reagan administration, Jelly Bellies were served in the Oval Office and on Air Force One. A special holder was designed for the plane so the jar would not spill during turbulence. Jelly Bellies even made a trip into space when President Reagan sent them on the 1983 Challenger shuttle as a surprise for the astronauts.
While blueberry remains one of the most popular flavors, it was not Reagan’s favorite. That honor goes to the black licorice-flavored bean. There are images of jars with the red, white, and blue assortment at various cabinet meetings and events. Photographs show jars containing an assortment of color Jelly Bellies on Reagan’s desk. Perhaps he picked out the black ones and saved them for himself.
Donna D. McCreary is the author of Lincoln’s Table: A President’s Culinary Journey from Cabin to Cosmopolitan and Fashionable First Lady: The Victorian Wardrobe of Mary Lincoln.