This week, a fierce debate struck up online inspired by a 2015 article in Garden & Gun magazine. Called “A Forgotten Southern Sandwich,” the piece discusses the history of the peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich, apparently created during the Depression in nearly-bare larders as hungry people searched for a valuable combo of protein and fat. Many of the Southerners quoted in the article claimed to still love the sandwich, saying they’d grown up on it. Twitter respondents either agreed heartily or recoiled in horror. There seemed to be very little ground when it came to the peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich.
I had never actually had one, although I remember a childhood friend who enthused that adding the mayo to the peanut butter stopped it from sticking to the roof of your mouth. So in the interest of science, and a cheap lunch, I bought a loaf of white bread to go along with some peanut butter and mayonnaise, and set out to find some brave tasters.
First, I polled the entire office, asking if anyone had ever had a peanut-butter-and-mayo sandwich. Forty-one people answered; zero people said yes. I then asked if anyone would be willing to try one. Seven people said yes (curiously, all male); 13 said no. I soon carved up peanut-butter-and-mayo sandwiches for some hopefully hungry co-workers.
I think all of us were expecting to be disgusted, and instead were delightfully surprised. If you didn’t think about it too much, the mayo enhanced the peanut butter, making it rather tangy with a pleasing sort of savoriness, like an “eggy peanut butter sandwich.” It was less heavy than a peanut-butter-only sandwich (although it honestly didn’t seem like much of a threat to the classic PB&J). Of the peanut-butter-and-mayo combo, one person said, “It’s no worse than either of them on their own,” said one taster (I keep forgetting how much people really hate mayo around here.)
Then people began to wax rhapsodic about what kind of person would actually eat these types of sandwiches. Someone “way into working out,” some surmised, who would need the protein and be ready to burn off the fat. The saddest scenario was that the peanut-butter-and-mayo constituted the “depressed divorced dad kind of meal,” like when you’ve got custody that weekend and the kids’ softball practice is over and there’s nothing in the kitchen. This is what comes from working with creative people.
The other problem with the sandwich, besides the painful one-season sitcom scenarios it inspired, was lack of texture. It was hard for some people to get around the creamy, high-caloric aspect of the peanut butter-mayo combo: “It feels like it’s bad for you.” Another sandwich-tryer agreed, “My arteries are clogging as I chew.” “It’s closing my throat!” cried a third.
This effect seemed to be the worst with untoasted white bread rather than toasted; its taster complained, “Every aspect of it is soft.” I also thought some texture might have done well, like crunchy peanut butter, or a slice of iceberg lettuce, just to keep everything in the same bland-ish family but still adding a little crunch.
Not these guys: For an add, they suggested sriracha. That’s “not adding texture, which is what it needs!” another taster pointed out. But I have to say that the sriracha weirdly bound the whole thing together, like some kind of squishy pad Thai sandwich. I doubt those Depression-era sandwich-eaters had sriracha around, but maybe the readers of Garden & Gun should give it a try.
Lessons learned from making a sandwich I’d always heard about but never tried: Sometimes even strange combos are legendary for a reason. And sometimes even legendary combos can be improved with some unlikely inspiration.