Welcome to American Sandwiches Week, a celebration of the mighty sandwich through the lens of Americana.
Late in 1897, an exciting new culinary trend began sweeping the nation. “Peanuts, which not so long ago were tabooed articles of diet at polite functions, now occupy a well-deserved rank in the household,” reported the Virginia Enterprise. Thanks to a widely-syndicated article from the Ladies’ Home Journal, all of America learned that peanuts, when “thoroughly roasted” and grated and spread on top of buttered bread made a satisfying sandwich filling, especially for sandwiches sliced into rounds, crescents, triangles, or other fancy shapes. Or, the article concluded grudgingly, “you may buy for those a peanut butter.”
Peanut butter had previously been a health food item, prescribed by John Harvey Kellogg, the physician, dietician, and anti-masturbation crusader, as a meat substitute for vegetarians. But by the spring of 1898, it had gone mainstream and was readily available in grocery stores. It was the latest fad, proclaimed Johnson & Brother of New Haven, Connecticut, and the very best way to impress your friends, or at least give them a novelty without having to go to the trouble of roasting and grinding your own peanuts. And a jar cost just 25 cents!
Soon America was hopelessly in love. Peanut butter was both healthy and delicious. “The dyspeptic’s delight!” wrote the (unnamed) “In the Domain of Women” columnist for the Omaha Daily Bee in an article that provided instructions from a New York caterer about how to make a “sandwich tree” for tea parties. The burgeoning vegetarian movement continued to embrace it: A reporter for the New York Sun attended a picnic held by the New York Vegetarian Society and was offered a peanut butter sandwich by “a woman with a sallow complexion and a hungry look.”
But carnivores also loved peanut butter, and so did children and the ladies who frequented tearooms. Even the domestic scientists approved. Naturally, of course, they began their own creative experiments in peanut butter sandwiches. The 1928 cookbook Seven Hundred Sandwiches by Florence A. Cowles, uncovered by food historian Abigail Carroll, had an entire chapter devoted to peanut butter: peanut butter and apricot, peanut butter and tomato, peanut butter and prune, peanut butter and pickle, peanut butter and olive, peanut butter with cheese and lettuce. (Elvis had nothing on these women.) It seems astonishing now, but it seems to have taken years, at least until the late 1910s, around the same period as the advent of the Fluffernutter, before peanut butter found its permanent sandwich partner: jelly.
With the advent of pre-sliced bread, peanut butter and jelly became the sandwich that was so simple, even a child could make it. It could survive a little crushing in a lunch bag or a pocket, a few hours in an unrefrigerated locker. It was nutritious and provided energy instead of a post-lunchtime crash. It contained the intoxicating combination of sugar, fat, salt, protein, and starch that stimulated the brain’s pleasure centers.
If this essay were being written 25 years ago, it would be the easiest thing in the world to argue that peanut butter and jelly was the most American sandwich. Everybody ate it! Just about everybody loved it, from nursery schoolers to NBA stars! It could be easily varied to stave off boredom: toasted bread, strawberry jelly instead of grape, crunchy instead of creamy, a few bananas, maybe some honey. It was perfect in almost every possible way.
And then came the peanut allergy.
Doctors first identified peanut allergies in the early 1980s and began studying them in earnest around 1990. Between 1997 and 2002, based on a survey of more than 13,000 people, the percentage of children in the U.S. with peanut allergies doubled, from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent, and it nearly doubled again by 2008, when the rate was 1.4 percent. This seems like a minuscule amount considering all the attention these allergies have attracted, but peanut allergies are far more severe than other food allergies: instead of resulting in hives, even a mere trace of peanut can cause anaphylactic shock, which can lead to trips to the emergency room and sometimes even death. No one knows why American children are more prone to peanut allergies than children in developing countries, where peanut butter is used to alleviate malnutrition: theories range from vitamin D deficiency to folate surplus to underused immune systems that need something to lash out at.
Whatever the case, peanuts are now legume-non-grata in many schools and offices and on airplanes. Which leaves our once-ubiquitous and universally beloved peanut butter sandwich... where?
There have been efforts to make do. Grocery stores now carry so many substitutes—cashew butter, almond butter, soy nut and chickpea and pumpkin seed and sunflower seed butters, tahini—it seems like we should have no reason to miss peanut butter at all. Look at all the seeds and nuts that can be ground up into a creamy consistency and spread onto bread! And yet... We still dream of making peanut butter America’s sandwich again.
Last year the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases published a new series of guidelines that recommended parents who believe their children are at risk for developing a peanut allergy to start feeding them foods containing peanut powder or extract before they’re six months old so they can build up a tolerance before they reach the age when the initial reactions typically begin (usually 14-24 months). Previously, those parents were advised to withhold peanuts until the kids were three years old.
The doctors were optimistic that within a few years, Americans could see a dramatic decline in the incidence of peanut allergies. The first thing the reporter asked was about a possible end to the peanut-butter-and-jelly ban in school lunchrooms.
This is why peanut butter is the most American sandwich of all. Despite the dangers, despite the abundance of other options, we refuse to give up our peanut butter. Truly, we cannot imagine life without it.