By Maria Jacketti
American children have clamored for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for more than a century. During the heyday of the 20th century, as in the 1960s, when I was a child, this sandwich typically comprised a tutti-frutti combo we all knew by heart: Take white bread, about two dollops of peanut butter and a good splish of really sweet jelly, usually but not necessarily, Concord grape. Spread it all atop the slices, and then press them together into the ultimate kindergarten and hullabaloo of all sandwiches, which of course, many adults loved and still do, either secretly, or like me, with brazen abandon.
Today, we spread those prairies of peanut butter across many splendid breads, multi-grain, oatmeal, cinnamon raisin, homemade or artisan loaves that reflect the creativity inherent in a work of pure and simple nourishment. I have not outgrown peanut butter, and never will, but I have transcended white bread, well, for the most part. Okay — I’m not too proud to dive into a loaf of pillowy, cloud bread when nostalgia calls. After all, peanut butter is really packing all the nutritional muscle in the old sandwich, which lives in the museum of the American mind.
Yes, glorious goober butter is a culinary paradox, lending itself lusciously to both sweet – and savory renditions of the classic sandwich. I’m thinking now of the spiced tomato or alligator-colored jalapeño jellies we made several summers ago. And let’s not forget Vidalia onion jam, which marries peanut butter best on an Everything Bagel. Peanut butter is a magnet for spice. But how did the Earl of Sandwich’s favorite creation ever find its stick-to-the-roof-of-your- mouth soul-mate?
The history of almost everyone’s favorite sandwich is a little obscure. We know that around the 1880s housewives were using meat grinders to make their own peanut paste. That had to be laborious, and the difficulty of making homemade peanut butter, probably led to its reputation in the early 1900s, as a delicacy, yes, served with jelly in fine tea rooms (as opposed to loud lunch rooms). In fact, the 1904, World’s Fair established PB&J as a lavish, must- have sandwich for the beautiful people, rather than food for the grassroots folk. During those days of old fashioned, long courtships, a jar of peanut was both rare and prized, as in “Dear, I could not afford a diamond, but would you accept this jar of peanut butter and be my wife?”
In the background, you might hear collective swooning and giddy violins, “Why yes, dear. Only my truest love could bring me such a treasure.”
And they lived happily ever after, in a land of lip-smacking, peanut butter kisses.
Of course, some things have changed. And I would not advise peanut butter trumping diamonds to secure a relationship now.
The American palate was still decades away from peanut butter’s ascension to every day American plate, and wildly imaginative, and not always so healthful inventions, such as Elvis Presley’s deep- fried peanut butter banana and bacon sammy.
Mechanization soon helped make peanut affordable, and as time the century progressed, very economical. (The invention of sliced bread in the 1920s also helped the sandwich to gain popularity.) Suddenly, the opulent peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the darling of tea circles, became fast food and a soul’s banquet for the hungry masses.
As the country approached mid-century, the need for hearty sustenance grew ever greater. During the Great Depression, meat became the new delicacy, just as peanut butter, just decades earlier had been a health food spread priced just for the rich, or those willing to cough up fat pennies for a culinary splurge. Many Americans turned to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich to source their daily protein, as the spread now cost less than the animal-derived varieties.
As the country entered World War II, and rationing became the norm for many staples, peanut butter remained abundant, and blessedly available to the average American. Even soldiers drew strength and comfort from a sandwich that was now a tradition in most homes. The American indispensable, peanut butter, was not subject to rationing. Instead, it became a symbol of unwavering plenty.
Today, the world of peanut butter is vast. And while peanut butter and purple grape jelly may be your favorite in its most familiar form, you also may want to try a few newer versions.
Take Elvis’ favorite, which I’ve renamed “The Heartbreak Hotel.” This sandwich can be reinvented by using low fat bacon, such as turkey, or veggie bacon — my favorite. Dip the sandwich in a and egg whites flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, and you can have a healthy stuffed French toast version of the Elvis “Heartbreak Hotel,” either grilled on the stove top or baked in medium oven, let’s say at 350 degrees, for about 15 minutes.
Or you may want to get gussied up for a garden party and serve “The Pimento,” derived from one of the first New York tea room sandwiches, peanut butter and pimento, crusts cut off, and served in neat circles and triangles. Use fine bread, for example, elegant and firm white, a bread with some backbone – sorry, trampoline bread (the springy kind) just won’t work for these. Spread with peanut butter, and then add pimento cream cheese. The jelly can be a bit tricky with this one, but either cherry, or mint work well. Add a flourish of alfalfa sprouts, and if it’s summertime, and your nasturtiums are in bloom, top with a flurry of the petals, which become a peppery garnish.
Finally, if you are like me today, stranded in the middle of winter and dreaming of a tropical island, “The Piña and Peanut Butter Colada” is easy and full of sunshine. Spread peanut butter on Sweet Hawaiian bread (or a Hawaiian roll), top with toasted coconut and pineapple jelly or fruit spread. Raisin bread also works well with this treat.
While peanut butter and jelly sandwiches certainly formed a part of my childhood, my most intense memory of their sustenance happened during the 9th month of my only pregnancy, nearly twenty years ago. As the time to have the baby approached, I slept most of the time. While cooking is one of my passions, I had not even the energy to boil water, as I awaited this great moment. My husband had to work all day, and we were hundreds of miles away from any family who might make me a traditional meal. So my breakfasts, lunches, and snacks consisted uniquely of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! During that month, I probably downed a hundred of them.
I ended up having a very healthy baby, one who still loves this classic sandwich and makes one almost every day. The tradition lives on with giggles and jewel-jellied faces, in most American kitchens, for as you might have guessed, our prototype, Miss America (having doffed her Victorian corset) married the love of her life, the Peanut Butter Prince, and together they created the chow – and the ambrosia — of a great nation.
Maria Jacketti is co-founder of Mountain Laurel Consultants, a professional writing company based in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.