Alimentary, My Dear
Remembrance of Childhood Past —
The Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Goes Wild
By Tamia Nelson
July 16, 2013
What with one thing and another, I've eaten a lot of meals in the field, many of them in a hurry. And in my search for quick‑and‑easy portable foods I've tried just about everything, from homemade nutrition bars to energy drinks. But in the end, I always seem to return to that classic of brown‑bag school lunches — do kids still bring lunches to school nowadays? — the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
These were staple fare when I was a girl. Faced with the job of feeding a houseful of kids on too little money, my mother had to pinch pennies till they squeaked. And the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was a vital part of her budget‑balancing strategy. These were classic PB&Js, of course: gummy white bread from a sliced loaf almost as long as a country‑kitchen counter, plus whatever peanut butter was on sale that week — and grape or strawberry jelly, of course. The only variation on the theme came when the red currant bush that my mother lovingly tended in the backyard yielded up its annual crop. Then homemade red currant jelly replaced the inferior store‑bought goos, and joy reigned supreme until the supply ran out. Red currant is still my favorite.
As I got older, however, my tastes became more sophisticated. My stint as a teenage cook in my parents' greasy spoon helped. We may never have earned a Michelin star, but we did serve very good food. And I soon learned to build sandwiches of every description, using oven‑warm bread from the local baker — an Italian gentleman who'd learned his trade in the old country — fresh vegetables from surrounding farms, and meat from the butcher just down the state highway. By the time I was in my late teens, therefore, PB&Js made only rare appearances on my plate, and once I left home, they dropped off my menu altogether. The PB&J was kid stuff, after all, and I was no longer a kid.
But then I started working in the stones‑and‑bones trade, supervising field crews and doing geological reconstructions for teams of archeologists engaged in surveying pipeline routes and highway corridors. That's when the PB&J came back into my life. It was an easy sandwich to throw together in motel room or cook tent, it traveled well in a rucksack or the big back pocket in my field vest, and it kept me going through 12‑hour days, even when I spent most of those hours floundering through spiky spruce hells or interminable alder swamps, far from anything resembling a trail.
The PB&J also found its way onto my paddling menu. After all, the same considerations applied: ease of assembly, good traveling qualities, and plenty of stick‑to‑the‑ribs nourishment. Thomas Wolfe was dead wrong, it seems. I could go home again.
Perhaps, though, you're not convinced. Maybe you still think that the PB&J is kid stuff. In that case, why not join me in …
Taking a Closer Look at an Old Favorite
There's no such thing as "the PB&J," of course. Its protean nature is its strength. You can assemble it using basic, buy‑it‑by‑the‑yard white bread or some costly, crusty artisan‑baked confection. No‑name creamy peanut butter or a fragrant paste made from fresh‑ground hazelnuts. (OK. This makes it an HB&J, I suppose, but I think it's an allowable variation.) Gummy generic grape jelly or preserves made at home from berries gathered in your own backyard. Or apple butter, for that matter. (Is this now a PB&A? Or a PB&B? I leave that up to you — and to any food taxonomists who stumble across this column.)
Let's consider the many alternatives in detail, beginning with the …
- Bread (white, whole‑grain, rye, sourdough, or gluten‑free)
- Rolls (ditto)
- Tortillas (flour, whole‑grain, or corn)
- Flavored wraps (basically very large tortillas)
- English muffins (white, whole wheat, raisin, or what you will)
- Crackers (Graham, whole‑grain, rye, saltines, etc.)
Tortillas, wraps, and pancakes can be rolled into a log, or folded in half around the fillings, while thicker flatbreads like pita and bannock should be split, with the filling then spread over the exposed surfaces. And now that we've introduced the subject of fillings, it's time to ring the changes, starting with …
- Peanut butter, of course, smooth or chunky, either bog‑standard or "natural"
- Any other nut spread: almond butter, say, or cashew (Is this still a PB&J? I think so — in spirit, anyway.)
- Nutella or one of its imitators (Yes, I know it's a chocolate spread, but it also contains hazelnuts, so I'm prepared to allow it on a technicality.)
And then there's the third leg of the tripod:
- Jelly (You're not surprised, are you? Pick your favorite.)
- Jam (ditto)
- Preserves (also ditto)
- Fruit spread (likewise)
- Apple butter
So much for the "P," the "B," and the "J." But at this point I'm going to throw a googly — I hope this is cricket — by introducing a fourth letter: "O" for …
Other Optional Ingredients
- Sliced fresh fruit
- Dried fruit (bananas, apples, or oranges)
- Sliced vegetables (carrots, bell peppers, or onions)
- Nuts (whole nuts, that is; I favor pistachios) or seeds
- Maple syrup
- Potato chips or sticks
- Chocolate chips
- Bacon bits (echt or ersatz)
- SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM…
- Marmite (trust me: you'll either love it or hate it)
- Spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ground black pepper)
These lists should offer plenty of scope for experimentation. And you'll probably have your favorites from each leg of the PB&J tripod … er … tetrapod. I'm particularly partial to apricot jam in the "jelly" slot, for example. When married with whole‑wheat bread, sliced onions, and slivered red bell peppers, it's delicious.
There's more to ringing the changes than choosing ingredients, of course. You can, for example, …
Make Hot PB&Js
And here are several ways to do it:
- Make PB&J quesadillas.
- Toast a basic PB&J in a little butter in a skillet.
- Make an open‑faced PB&J melt on a bagel, with cream cheese on top.
- Spread fillings on pan‑toasted bread or English muffins.
- Spread fillings on hot pancakes, then roll 'em up.
Before we go any further, however, let's see how all this chopping and changing works in practice. Check out this simple Test Kitchen cold platter:
Starting at 1100 and working widdershins round the plate, you see (1) a half sandwich of peanut butter with blackberry jam and fresh grapes, (2) a whole‑wheat tortilla wrapped around peanut butter, apricot jam, a sliced red onion, and a red bell pepper (also sliced), and (3) another whole‑wheat tortilla folded around sliced fresh oranges pressed into peanut butter and apricot jam. (The fresh fruit and the carrot sticks on the right are there to demonstrate that paddlers don't live by PB&J alone, though many have tried — and succeeded, at least for a while.)
But perhaps we've gone too far, too fast. I may have assumed too much. After all, the loftiest architectural confection must be grounded on a firm foundation. That being the case, and for those of you who didn't grow up among a house full of kids — or do time in the kitchen of a greasy spoon in your formative years — here's …
How to Build a Basic PB&J
Every PB&J aficionado has his or her favorite way, of course. I'll tell you mine. The most important thing is to avoid soggy bread — not always the easiest thing to do if your pantry is traveling with you in a small boat. But it's vital that you make the attempt, because any PB&J built on a soggy foundation will sag and ooze and otherwise misbehave.
Got your bread? Good. Now spread the peanut butter on both pieces. (One surface of each piece only — but I didn't need to say that, did I?) Work it right up to the edge and then… Stop! If you overshoot, you'll get peanut butter on your hands when you eat your creation, and from there it will travel to your pack and eventually cover every item of gear, including your camera and your sleeping bag. The end result? You'll have more followers in your wake than the Pied Piper of Hamelin ever did, likely including a bear or two.
Why do I go on at such length about spreading the peanut butter up to the edge of the bread? Because it constitutes a moisture‑proof barrier, protecting the bread from the juicy jelly filling. And that's what gets laid down next, right on top of the impermeable peanut butter layer. Spread the jelly on one half of your sandwich only, and be sure to stop short of the edge of the peanut butter. The result is a stepped pyramid of sorts, with bread at the base, peanut butter in the middle, and a jelly top course. Now only one step remains: to place the capstone, and that's the second slice of bread, already spread with peanut butter. Press gently to marry the layers. Go easy. You don't want to trigger a jam release. (You can halve or quarter the finished sandwich if you want, but it's very hard to do this without spilling some filling. Almost impossible, in fact.)
That was easy, wasn't it? But PB&J tortillas require a different approach. I like to spread the peanut butter all over one face of the round, going almost to the edge. Next, I spread a thin, even layer of jelly over one half of the buttered area, leaving a half‑inch jelly‑free margin. Then I roll the tortilla over the filling, starting with the jelly half. The result yields a maximum of flavor, nutrition, and convenience. And isn't that what the PB&J is all about?
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich may not be haute cuisine, but it's a tasty way to get a lot of calories in a hurry. And as we've seen, there's plenty more to like about this lunch‑bag staple, including economy and ease of preparation. Nor will you find many quick‑and‑easy meals that lend themselves to such a range of fruitful variation. The unpretentious PB&J is a good traveler, too. Which is why it's a regular in my backcountry menu plans. So, how about it? Will you join me in a remembrance of childhood past? Make a PB&J today!
- Alimentary, My Dear — Fuel for Paddlers: a topical collection of columns from the In the Same Boat Archive, including …
- "Bagels — From the Deli to Your Belly"
- "Tortilla Round"
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