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Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Book Review

The Peanut Butter Chronicles, or Growing Up With Peter Pan

Stuart Mitchner

My father used to make gifts appear “by magic.” He’d go abracadabra and point to a chair and presto, I’d find a comic under the cushion. My mother’s magic was unannounced. For all I knew, she wasn’t even there when I walked in and saw four open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches neatly arranged, two above, two below, on the kitchen table. Made with Wonder Bread no doubt. My mother must have been in the room, pouring a glass full of cold milk, but I only had eyes for those little darlings on the plate.

The phrase “as American as apple pie” has become a cliche of the culture because it hangs together so nicely, comes so trippingly on the tongue. I’ve got nothing against apple pie, but I can think of better choices. Like cheeseburgers, baseball, and, above all, peanut butter and jelly.

Because the almighty PBJ sandwich is high on my list of things that make life worth living, I bolted out of the house the other morning immediately after receiving the following email from my wife:

“I have only two words for you. Peanut butter.”

I knew what she was telling me. The day before, the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, by way of NPR, had declared that the cost of peanuts for peanut butter manufacturers had almost doubled over what was paid last year. They were predicting a huge mark up in the shelf price. Time to hoard.

I hit three stores and came home with ten jars, five of them from Trader Joe’s, where the person at the cash register told me the media was overreacting and that the only TJ product affected would be their organic peanut butter.

Ten jars is okay with us. There’s never too much of this precious commodity. We’re talking about the ultimate comfort food. Peanut butter consumption has jumped by 10 percent since the big downturn of 2008 because when things get tough, peanut butter gets going. In The Peanut Butter Diet (2001) by Holly McCord, it’s fourth on the list of kitchen staples in American homes, after eggs, granulated sugar, and flour. Which explains how people in the U.S.A. reportedly manage to consume more than 700 pounds of The Great American Foodstuff each year. For myself, I used to think that if I’d kept track, I could have been in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. When I try to compute how many PBJ sandwiches or the equivalent thereof I’ve eaten since infancy, I go into mathematical freefall, but if you include the various combinations (peanut butter and honey or jelly on bagel and English muffin, etc.) it comes out to something like 75,000, and that’s after taking into account several years spent in countries where peanut butter was unobtainable.

Some History

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough’s The Ultimate Peanut Butter Book (Morrow 2005) offers a brief historical summary dating back to 2500 B.C. when the Incas were growing peanut crops in Peru. For now, keeping in mind that in the mid-1700s peanut plants were brought to America by African slaves, let’s jump ahead to 1890 when a St Louis food manufacturer named George Bayle Jr. began selling something resembling the product we know today, only to be outdone five years later by the Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Michigan, who applied for a patent “to create a paste from nuts and legumes” they called “nut butter.” The first recorded, tabulated sale may have been at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, where one C.H. Sumner set up a booth and made $705.11 selling peanut butter.

Although Krema Products of Columbus Ohio was the first to market peanut butter in stores in 1908 (and is apparently still in business), the modern version was born in 1922 when J.L. Rosefield found a way to keep the oil from separating from the butter. A year later he licensed the process to Swift & Company for E.K. Pond Peanut Butter, which became Peter Pan in 1928. Five years later in the midst of the Depression, Rosefield launched his own brand, Skippy, in red, white, and blue tins.

Peter Pan in Heels

Once I started thinking about my peanut butter past, I realized that Swift & Company’s marketing department had contributed in subtle and devious ways to a susceptibility to the charms of the opposite sex that included both the girls in my first grade class and the lovely full-grown woman posing as Peter Pan on the pressure-sealed tin containers my mother brought home from the A&P every week.

Think about it. The boy created by James M. Barrie refuses to grow up, has the ability to fly, and lives in a magic realm called Neverland, where he hangs out with mermaids, pirates, fairies, and ordinary kids like Wendy while the “boy” smiling invitingly out at you from the Peter Pan label during the crazed melodrama of puberty is wearing a form-fitting forest-green dress and matching high heels that show off her shapely legs and ankles.

Around the time I entered junior high, by then having developed a dreamy, subliminal crush on the smiling woman in green, along came Dauntless, a brand I actually liked better than Peter Pan. The obvious reason was that it tasted incredibly good, a richly textured treat, thick and grainy, not so smoothly processed, and the image on the label was all man. My scholar father thought the booted, helmeted, sword-bearing figure was meant to be a Trojan soldier. Along with the fact that Dauntless was made in Terre Haute, a city known for its red light district, Trojan revived the sexual associations, as it shared the name of a well-known brand of condom. Check online, and you’ll find that the Dauntless warrior’s helmet and the one displayed on a packet of Trojans are all but identical.

Original Dauntless Peanut Butter labels are selling online for $3.99 from a site called Nosy Parker’s Nook. You can buy prints of Tom Sawyer Peanut Butter labels showing a barefoot boy with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder for $7.60. I’m thinking what if I’d grown up eating PBJs made with the Tom Sawyer brand or with Peter Pan after the sexless Disney elf replaced the woman in green?

Peanuts and peanut products are loaded with Vitamin E, by the way, the so-called “sexuality vitamin” recommended by “leading sexologists for a restorative diet.” Peanut butter as an alternative to Viagra? There’s a scary thought. Four bucks a bottle would be a steal.

Hemingway’s Favorite

In case there was any doubt about peanut butter’s manly qualities, Ernest Hemingway’s friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner claims that it was the spread used for Papa’s favorite sandwich. In the posthumously published novel Islands in the Stream (1970), when Thomas Hudson asks for a peanut butter and onion sandwich with “plenty of onion,” it’s presented to him as “One of the highest points in the sandwich-maker’s art… the Mount Everest Special. For Commanders only.”

Hotchner provides Hemingway’s recipe:

“2 slices white bread,

Peanut butter,

2 thick slices onion.

Spread one piece of bread thickly with peanut butter. Lay onion slices on top. Cover with second slice of bread.”

Easy, huh? Okay, so do you use Spanish onions? Vidalia onions? Red onions? How about a little mayo? Raw onion on untoasted white bread? Please!

Notable Users

Interesting how white bread is stipulated in Hemingway’s recipe. In telling Oprah that PBJ was his favorite sandwich, George W. Bush also specified “on white bread.” And it’s true, nutrition issues aside, white may be preferable since there’s less between you and the happy essence.

Of course some people, like Tony Soprano, eat it straight from the jar.

Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite treat while working as a young comic in the 1970s was a toasted bagel, peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon. Before her attempt to swim from the Keys to Cuba, Diana Nyad said she would sustain her energy by eating peanut-butter sandwiches. Apparently Woody Allen won’t go near the stuff because he suffers from archibutyrophobia, “the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.” In the “Lucy Hires a Maid” episode of I Love Lucy, the maid is chastised for making a peanut butter sandwich too gooey.

The Dark Side

Elvis Presley is probably the best-known peanut butter habitué, thanks in part to a certain sleazy biographer’s theory that the King’s passion for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches slathered in butter helped kill him. Yet another combination billed online as the “sandwich that killed Elvis” calls for a loaf of Italian bread, a jar of Smucker’s grape jelly, a jar of Skippy’s peanut butter, a stick of butter, and a pound of bacon.

I don’t want to end with a downer, but it would be unseemly to ignore the Peter Pan and Great Value Recall of 2007, sparked by the first salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter to occur in the U.S. Two years later the Peanut Corporation of America recalled 21 lots of peanut butter. Heather Fraser’s book The Peanut Allergy Epidemic (Skyhorse 2011) provides an in-depth study of the problem; one blurb shouts, “How can a humble PBJ sandwich terrorize three million Americans?”

Peanut Butter and Politics

My guess is that the ten jars now stacked in the cupboard will be gone this time next year, as Election Day approaches. During the campaign, regardless of who the Republicans nominate, we’ll be sure to hear repeated references to Obama’s socialist and/or communistic leanings, as happened last time around. When the inevitable occurs, maybe he’ll use the rejoinder he came up with back in late October of 2008 when he said, in effect, that by the end of the week, McCain “will be accusing me of being a secret communist because in kindergarten I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

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