Boomers Loved Easter Jelly Beans

Easter, that strange amalgam of the religious and secular, was celebrated by many boomers as a time to enjoy certain seasonal candies. Specifically, what candy corn was to Halloween, jelly beans were to Easter.

Historians do not agree on the origin of jelly beans, but many point to Turkey centuries ago, where a gel-like candy was covered in crushed pistachios. However, the more modern version of what we know as jelly beans — a concoction of sugar and corn syrup thickened with corn starch — was introduced after the Civil War. A couple of decades later, during World War I, the Schrafft candy company tried to boost jelly bean sales by suggesting people buy them to send to the soldiers fighting in Europe. Slowly, jelly beans carved a niche in candy consumption.

By the 1930s, jelly beans began to be associated with Easter. The reason, more than likely, was the bright colors of the candies as a reflection of spring, like Easter itself. During World War II, sugar rationing hit U.S. confectionery companies hard, with many going out of business. After the war came the Boomer Generation, and with it, a resurgence in candy sales.

As far back as Mister Boomer can remember, Easter baskets were part of his household’s Easter tradition. His mother was the main annual assembler of the baskets. Somewhere in the early 1950s, his parents bought baskets for Mister B and his siblings. Once emptied of their goodies after Easter, the baskets were stored in the basement, like Christmas decorations. Each year, “fresh” Easter grass was placed into them, followed by loose jelly beans, individually wrapped milk chocolate eggs, a marshmallow peep or two (or occasionally chocolate covered marshmallow eggs), and topped off with a boxed chocolate bunny. A single bag of jelly beans was all that was needed to split among the three children.

When asked what jelly beans tasted like in the boomer years, many boomers may be hard pressed to answer. To this day, Mister Boomer and his siblings say the red ones tasted “red.” There was hardly a discernible flavor to some of the colors at all, other than sweet. Orange was vaguely orange, and some say the green was vaguely lime. The black jelly beans were the exception, in that they had a licorice flavor. They were a favorite of Mister B’s mom, who was sure to filter out a few for herself before filling the Easter baskets.

For Mister Boomer, jelly bean flavors fell into a specific hierarchy of preference:
Red: top of the list
Black: pretty good
White, Yellow & Orange: OK
Green: meh
Purple: not so good
Light Blue: blecch! horrible!

Mister Boomer, always the pragmatist, didn’t want to eat his favorites first; rather, he would be sure some of his favorites lasted as long as possible. The light blue ones tested his discipline, though. They often ended up last in the basket.

Later-era boomers may recall when a new jelly bean arrived on the shelves in 1976. For early-era boomers, purchasing these new confections may have been for their own children. These candies were smaller, but packed a lot of flavor. They were labeled as gourmet and the flavors, matched to colors, were printed on the back of the package.

Called Jelly Belly, gourmet jelly beans were introduced by confectioner Herman Goelitz. The smaller size belied the explosion of flavor that accompanied each tiny bean. They reminded Mister Boomer of how the larger bulbs hung on Christmas trees in the 1940s and ’50s slowly but surely were supplanted by the smaller, brightly-colored lights of the 1960s.

Though gourmet jelly beans have not completely replaced the traditional jelly beans known by boomers, they have captured a wide audience of year-round jelly bean enthusiasts. In fact, many claim their popularity was boosted when President Ronald Reagan, a huge fan, kept them in a jar on his desk in the Oval Office. Reagan began munching the candies when he gave up smoking a pipe as Governor of California. When he became president, the then California-based Herman Goelitz Candy Company (now renamed Jelly Belly) shipped jelly beans to the White House every month. For his inauguration, the company created a blue jelly bean (blueberry) to accompany the red (very cherry), and white (coconut). Three and a half tons were given to guests.

How about you, boomers? Do you have fond memories of jelly beans at Easter, or did you dislike them the way some boomers will never touch a circus peanut?

Boomers Had “Family Recipes”

If you have been watching any of the food competition shows that appear on multiple networks these days, you know they generally fall into two categories: professional cooks and home cooks. When you get into the home cook category, a common thread that appears in these shows is that sooner or later, the competitors are asked to present one of their favorite family recipes. That got Mister Boomer thinking: if he were involved in such a competition, what would he choose?

Mister B does not profess to have a favorite dish from his childhood, let alone a cherished family recipe. To be sure, there are boomers who do, and many who, in fact, are still cooking recipes that have been passed down for generations, as their relatives came here from “the old country.” Yet in Mister Boomer’s experience, many of the “family recipes” that boomers may remember were of more recent lineage.

For example, as Mister B executed the mental exercise of running through some usual dishes served in the Boomer household, it was easy enough to trace the bacon slices cooked into pancake batter recipe from the side of a Bisquick box. Pork chops with mushroom gravy came from a Campbell’s soup can. Even his mother’s baked beans and hot dogs recipe came from the side of a jar of B&M Baked Beans.

When it came to the holiday season, Mister B does have some nostalgia for cookie, cake and pie recipes, but he knows that these, too, came from packages, not from his ancestors. His mother’s Banana Cream Pie recipe was on the box of Jell-O pudding. Her Pineapple Upside-Down Cake recipe was printed on a Duncan Hines cake mix box; her “from scratch” shortcake biscuits for Strawberry Shortcake came from a Bisquick box as well.

Recipes on food packages began to appear during the Industrial Revolution, when mass-production of food items became a reality. Companies began hiring women to create recipes made with their products for this purpose. The idea was to get consumers interested in trying their product. Then the recipes had to keep changing so consumers would continue to buy the products, in order to try these new recipes.

Very possibly the most famous food packaging recipe ever was for the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie. The recipe was created by two chefs at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts back in 1938. Nestle printed their recipe on the back of its chocolate chip bags, and it has become the quintessential chocolate chip cookie recipe against which all others are measured.

Food packaging recipes during the Depression helped home cooks work within their limited budgets to stretch meals for families. During WWII they were altered to fit into food rationing requirements, such as substituting oleo margarine or shortening for butter; and molasses, sorghum, honey or maple syrup for granulated sugar. The parents of boomers grew up on these recipes, and a good many boomers that Mister B speaks with remember these types of recipes in their childhood as well.

Mister B note: This video is nearly 13 minutes long, but it’s amusing:

The heyday of food packaging recipes occurred during the prime boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s. There are many videos and such available these days that make fun of Tiki-inspired dishes and strange combinations of foods that might turn up in a packaging recipe. Take a look at what you have in your cupboard now; you just might find a few recipes there to try on your grandkids.

So, the question is, boomers, is that nostalgic or even cherished memory you have of a favorite recipe a genuine family heirloom, or did your mom find it on the back of a box, package or can?