Back in the fluorescent 1980’s, a weekend trip to my grandmother’s house was an exercise in remembering and embracing the style of the seventies. My favorite permanent fixture at her house was a really large orange decanter on the end of a hutch that was perched precariously next to an exceptionally creepy lamp. The base of this lamp was a group of wintery porcelain Christmas carolers slapped together and painted in a rather haphazard fashion. It could have been worse though, it could be a lamp made entirely out of clowns. No matter what time of year it was, those carolers were a constant staple of her odd decor choices which also included giant suits of armor positioned outside the master bathroom doors. We always considered a trip to grandma’s house closer to being a trip to a museum from all the things she and my grandfather had collected together while traipsing across the globe.
But, back to that orange decanter from the seventies… It was her candy dish and she would keep it stocked with good stuff most of the time. Originally, she filled it with mixed nuts and as time marched on, these ended up accumulating a thick coat of dust over them. When she realized these were not a popular choice, she would then decided to fill it with those Andes dinner mints and they would get completely devoured in a single day. These were always a huge hit with visitors and family, and she got tired of buying boxes and boxes of those damn things anytime anybody came by. One day, she chose to replace the Andes mints with something new that she had discovered while browsing the aisles of the Albertson’s supermarket two blocks away. The new disco jive in the disco candy dish was the amazing naturally flavored Sunkist Fruit Gems, which were delicious drops of gummy sugar parading around as a natural “alternative” to normal sugary candy.
The Gems are individually wrapped fruit jelly candy, covered in a thick coating of coarse sugar that feels a lot like the texture of your tongue when you hold it outside your mouth for a few minutes and let it completely dry out. I know that’s a strange descriptor, but it’s a better explanation to use than simply calling them “Fruity Tongue Jellies”. We positively devoured these things, leaving mountainous piles of plastic wrappers in our wake. During the 80’s, bags of these treats were plentiful and available in every grocery store, but as time wore on, the Gems began vanishing into thin air like Marty McFly did in 1955.
I eventually assumed that the Gems were gone forever, lost to the sugary sands of time. On a random day in 2016, I fondly remembered them out of the blue and decided to shop around online to see if there was a chance that they still existed. When I tell you that Amazon (no paid promotional plug here) has everything you can think of, I mean it. I found that they still sell two pound bags of these damn things in this day and age! They advertise a bunch of weird new flavors in the current assortments instead of the old ones, which were mostly citrus flavors. The user reviews warned me that the new blueberry and watermelon flavored replacements were a slight against God. I figured that any Fruit Gems was better than none, so I bought a bag of these off the internet (and they were not cheap, either).
When they arrived in the mail, I was both surprised and delighted that I got a bag that contained nothing but the original “Vintage 5” flavors. These flavors are Orange, Lemon, Grapefruit, Lime, and Raspberry. These are absolutely heavenly and have the capability to instantly transport me back to the good old days of HyperColor T-Shirts and Spuds MacKenzie. As a whole, these flavors are all good, but some are definitely better than others. Here’s my opinions of each flavor, ranked from worst to best.
5. Lemon Gems.
Anything lemon flavored is almost an admission to children that your candy is terrible. It’s like the laziest candy flavor of all time. Lemon Starbursts, Lemonheads and lemon Pez all taste like Satan’s sour taint. That being said, these lemon Gems taste familiarly like all that crap, but the amazing chewy Gem texture makes up for what it lacks in originality. There is no tartness to these, and it tastes like a gummy version of a Hostess lemon fruit pie. There is even a slight hint of a lemon peel finish. Each bite tastes like faintly of Lemon Pledge which can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your own personal tastes.
4. Lime Gems
Since lemon is on the menu already, you naturally know that lime is always next. They are not as bad as the lemon ones, but they still manage to be kinda terrible in their own unique way. All of these Gems claim to be made with natural fruit juices, but upon closer inspection, all the lime Gems have their own exclusive hue of green, ranging from a sickly chartreuse to a deep forest green which is somewhat unsettling to me. Are some of these Gems old? Are some of these under ripe? Only the candy man really knows what the fuck is going on.
These taste a lot like green jelly beans, but are far superior to those awful things due to being coated in an extra layer of sugar. I am hoping these have multiple uses, and I’m going to put one of these in my Corona to see if it takes me to the beach.
3. Raspberry Gems
I love handfuls of fresh raspberries picked right off the bush on the side of the highway. I don’t care if they have so many seeds that they are more fibrous than a handful of Metamucil. I love everything about raspberries. So why would this flavor be the middle of the road for me? Mostly because when candy has “natural” raspberry flavors, there’s the possibility that the factory is using castoreum, which is a fancy name for “beaver anal gland juice”. As a strict vegan, I’m opposed to milking beaver assholes for food flavorings.
These have a pleasant, however medicinal taste and have no tartness to them whatsoever. Reminds me of all those warm bottles of cough syrup I drank as a kid.
2. Orange Gems
As a kid, I hated the orange Gems. There was just too much market saturation and fixation with orange flavored shit. There was an orange flavored product for everything, including our breakfast cereals. Yes, we had a cereal that tasted like orange juice. The 80’s were a different and innocent time.
These Gems taste like fresh oranges picked off Florida trees. Just the right amount of sweetness balanced with a floral orange taste. It really tastes like a freshly picked navel, which as an adult, I can appreciate since I haven’t eaten a fruit or vegetable since 1997.
1. Grapefruit Gems
Grapefruits are my absolute favorite fruit. Grapefruit is an underused candy flavor, so whenever I can get my hands on anything grapefruit flavored, I will always give it a try. Big Lots used to carry some strange Willy Wonka grapefruit chews which always tasted a bit off, but that could simply be from the fact they hadn’t been manufactured since 2001. These Fruit Gems are the most coveted of all of the flavors, and I guarantee that when the bag starts to dwindle, I will have nothing but the grapefruit ones left because they will only be enjoyed on special occasions, like weddings and stuff.
The only issue I have with any kind of vintage candy comes down to my normal hoarding tendencies that render most consumables inedible. I hold on to them for an extremely long time, waiting for the right moment to consume them. Even though these are in a giant resealable bag and each are individually wrapped, they still seem to lose a bit of freshness as time rages on. If you loved these things as a kid, treat yourself to a bag and bite into the citrus-tastic time machine.
Sunkist Gems by Jelly Belly, $14.38 on Amazon.com