We were in the proximity of the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield over the weekend and stopped by ostensibly to stock up on the cheap two-pound bags of misshapen "Belly Flops." But we really wanted to visit the weird and wonderful folk art portraits of famous historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King. Jr., and Princess Diana, all rendered in exquisite jelly bean detail.
According to a Jelly Belly spokesperson, the 4-by-6-foot portraits can contain up to 14,000 jelly beans and take between 70 and 100 hours to complete. Each year the company commissions a new series of Jelly Belly art with a different theme -- the latest focus is "Masterpieces of Confectionery Art," which features Jelly Belly mosaics of famous paintings like the Mona Lisa, Girl with the Pearl Earring, and Starry Night. The new series is touring around the country, but you can see a full gallery on the Jelly Belly website.
The first Jelly Belly portrait was created by San Francisco artist Peter Rocha back in 1982, when he had the idea for a tie-in to President Ronald Reagan's enthusiasm for jelly beans (the former president used them as an aid to stop smoking -- you can see his presidential seal-branded jars of Jelly Bellies in the glass display case front-and-center when you walk in). It took Rocha six months to create his vision, dipping each bean in the glue and affixing to a color composition on canvas. But his effort was worth it: preserved in plastic resin, Jelly Belly Ronald Reagan still greets visitors at the factory entrance flanked by a smiling and cartoonish Secret Service.
Once you're at the factory, you might as well go on a free tour, which is fun in a Mister Rogers kind of way and gives you a comprehensive rundown of more than you ever wanted to know about Jelly Bellies (we wrote about it back in 2003). You can also visit a "tasting counter" where you can try every Jelly Belly flavor known to man, a gift shop which sells things like Jelly Belly-branded mugs and shower gel, a cafe that offers kidney-shaped pizzas, and a sad remainder store tucked away at the corner of the factory that appeared to be selling leftover bags of Easter candy.
But really, if you're ever heading out on I-80, do stop in for the portraits. And, speaking from experience, the Belly Flops make an excellent car snack.