Every first day of school, I expected two things in my brown-bagged lunch. The first was a note from my mom (yes, even in high school), and the second was a peanut butter sandwich. Luckily, the notes stopped after the first day – sparing me the embarrassment – but I still got a peanut butter sandwich in my lunch for the rest of the year. Like most children in America my school lunch from kindergarten through senior year of high school consisted of a peanut butter sandwich. Aside from the occasional bagel or the even more rare school-bought lunch, I am not exaggerating when I say that I ate a plain peanut butter sandwich every weekday for 13 years. Yes, plain – sans jelly. But I’m not complaining.
On the contrary, I love peanut butter, and I’m not alone. Peanut butter is consumed in more than 90 percent of U.S. households, smeared on slices of toast, paired with apples or celery sticks, and used in classic desserts. Each year Americans eat enough peanut butter to make more than 10 billion sandwiches. But peanut butter has so much more potential. Many other cultures have been using peanuts as a star component of many staple dishes. From Asian noodles coated in peanut sauces to African peanut stews, peanuts have proven themselves to be a worthy ingredient. So why does it get stuck as a humdrum sandwich spread or dip in the country that invented peanut butter? With this notion in mind, and a more mature palate, as well as, a kitchen of my own, I was ready to put the bread away and get cooking.
As recently as 15 years ago, peanut butter was nothing but wholesome. It was rubbed on Mr. Ed’s teeth, slathered on sandwiches, tucked into lunch boxes across the country, and stuck to celery and covered with raisins for “ants on a log” (a treat that always sounded more awesome than it tasted). Peanut butter was the protein-filled glue of childhood and a pleasant, nostalgia-filled comfort food for adults. Dammit, peanut butter was America.
Peanuts get a bad rap these days, from outright bans at schools to bags of Halloween candy proudly declaring their peanut deficiency. But when I was a kid, the more peanuts, the better. I present for your deliberation: Mars versus Snickers. Mars bar? Cloyingly sweet with an oddly slick texture. Snickers bar? Caramelly, chewy, and delicious—and stuffed with peanuts. I rest my case.
If peanuts are good, then peanuts and chocolate is better. There’s a reason that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have endured since 1928, and it isn’t because my college roommate used to—and probably still does—eat them compulsively. MORE
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory, and if that’s true, taste must follow close behind.
Whenever I taste peanut sauce, it’s like I’m teleported back to about 1999, Christmastime, around the dinner table. It was my small family, my nearly-senile, smelly-sweater-wearing grandpa, my uncle, and one of his long string of younger girlfriends with perms and degrees in fashion merchandising.
She–let’s call her Brandi because that sounds about right–wanted to help my mom make dinner that year. As my sister and I played with the cats to avoid interacting with actual relatives, she swooped out of the kitchen, lipsticked lips grinning. “It’s ready!”
“It” was peanut carrot soup. Or goop. Or something. It tasted like she’d put reduced-fat chunky Jif and rancid V-8 in a blender. Nasty. And we had to sit there fake-sipping it and saying “yum” without giggling (or gagging). MORE
My mom grew up in the fifties and sixties, in one of those idyllic suburban neighborhoods where kids walked to school unsupervised and played outside in the afternoons until the streetlights came on.
There was no better day of the year in her community than October 31. The streets would fill with miniature hobos, ghosts and witches, all clutching brown paper shopping bags to hold their treats, warm winter coats concealing most of their costumes.
These were the days before candy companies got wise and started producing snack and “fun” sized candy bars and long before homemade treats were deemed dangerous. This meant that my mom’s grocery sack ended up filled with full-sized Snickers and Chunky bars, freshly baked gingerbread men from Mrs. Rath and Mr. Brown’s famous popcorn balls. MORE