The Great American Sandwich

The Bald Eagle is the national bird, many states have state rocks, flowers, minerals and more. But I wonder what would be the National Sandwich if there were such a thing.

Some may suggest the hot dog, others would argue for the brat especially during football and grilling season in the upper midwest, Philly fans may suggest the cheesesteak, and fortune 500 empires have been built on the hamburger. But in my mind, the lowly peanut butter sandwich is the true American sandwich.

Most of us grew up on peanut butter sandwiches. We may not remember our first, but might remember mom cutting off the crusts, making them into squares or better yet triangles.

As we grew older, we graduated to the fold-over sandwich, a single piece of bread, buttered then slathered with peanut butter and then folded. Eventually, we grew into the two-handed two slice sandwich and later learned to appreciate a bread heartier than the soft white bread of our childhood.

Peanut butter sandwiches evolved and grew with us and in turn, we have passed them on to our children and grandchildren. What makes them even more fundamentally ours is the fact that they were the first meal we could prepare for ourselves. No sharp knives needed, no hot stove, safe and delicious as well as nutritious.

Mom appreciated her ability to task older children to feed their younger siblings, which in turn rewarded those tasked with a sense of competency and honor.

Now I admit, there are a few issues that detract from their otherwise universal appeal. Some 2 percent of children are allergic to peanuts and one in 200 adults and thus not fans — a serious detraction. Another unspeakably small number of people suffer from the unspeakably hard to pronounce phobia, Arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. But beyond these few, the peanut butter sandwich remains a dietary mainstay.

Now there are some controversies surrounding peanut butter.

For one there are those who prefer creamy peanut butter vs those who prefer chunky. More men than women are chunky fans, perhaps because they like the sense of getting something extra, like the toy at the bottom of a cracker jacks box. Chunky spreads less smoothly and is preferred by those who love to load up a substantial sandwich, while creamy can be spread thinly like gold vermeil for the calorie-conscious or purists who prefer to enjoy the aroma and flavor on warm toast stripped down to its bare essence.

In my personal life, I discovered that one of the big adjustments I needed to make when I got married was to convert from a lifetime love affair with Skippy peanut butter to my wife’s preferred Jif. It was almost a deal-breaker but true love prevailed and as all men know (or come to realize) a happy wife is required for a happy life. Today we stock Jif in the family pantry.

And then there is the size of the jar. Petite or warehouse-sized economy. My frugal side argues for economy my sensitive side for the smaller jar. Why, with a smaller jar, you need to open a new jar more often. That offers more opportunities to enter a state of mindfulness when the inner freshness seal is removed — allowing the aroma to waft up tingling our nostrils releasing a mouthwatering flood in joyous anticipation. This is one of life’s simple pleasures and should be celebrated and not rushed.

They really should put a notice on top of the jars, reminding people to pause and celebrate the opening of each jar, as if it were an American version of the Japanese tea ceremony. It deserves a ritual of its own.

Another point of contention in the jar size debate is the persistent challenge of getting the final 3–4 tablespoons of peanut butter out of the jar. It is easy enough to get the final bit along the bottom sides of the jar, but that pyramid in the middle can be a challenge regardless of the size of the jar. The downside to the larger jars is that while you can reach your hand into the jar, it tends to cause residual traces of peanut butter to collect on the back of your hand. Not the worse problem, but still a nuisance that tends to tip the scale to the smaller jar.

While the classic, especially for kids is soft white bread, there is a lot to be said for a heartier base. Among my favorites is a toasted English Muffin, preferably with an generous undercoating of butter pooled in the pitted surface. I also enjoy a soft rye bread as well as heartier stuff like Dave’s Killer Seeded bread.

The options here are endless, but I personally prefer soft bread for two-slice sandwiches and the heavier bread for toasted open face delight. The warmth of the toasted bread helps soften the peanut butter and serves to release the aroma amplifying eating enjoyment.

While many guess that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, that is not the case.

Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada patented peanut paste, in 1884 made from roasted peanuts.

Later in 1895, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of Kellogg’s cereal fame) patented a process for creating peanut butter from raw peanuts.

His goal was to create a nutritious alternative to meat protein for people who could not chew due to having lost their teeth. A more common issue in his day.

In 1903, Dr. Ambrose Straub of St. Louis, Missouri, patented a peanut-butter-making machine. This made its big debut at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

Combined they are the modern-day heroes who brought us the goodness of peanut butter. Historically, the Incas and Aztecs were the original peanut growers and are thought to have used a peanut paste of some sort although much of that is lost to history.

The South American heritage combined with both Canadian and United States inventors adds credence to my claim of peanut butter as American. Two US presidents grew peanuts. Jimmy Carter of course and also Thomas Jefferson, although in Jefferson's case in the pre-peanut butter era. Consider also that people in the US eat 20 times a much peanut butter as do Europeans and I submit it merits an “American” label. But…

Is it Healthy?

Packing 190 or so calories for a 2 tablespoon serving may at first glance raise some questions regarding its merits. When taking into account that it is 50% fat as well you may be quick to judge it a dangerous food, but most nutritionists will tell you the opposite.

A serving contains up to 8 grams of protein and 2–3 grams of fiber. It is a low carb option for those on low carb diets and is low glycemic which makes it a good choice for people with type 2 diabetes. While high in fats, the bulk of that fat is oleic acid which is considered to be good fat. It serves as a significant source of vitamins E, B3, B6, Folate, Magnesium, Copper and Manganese. It also has B5, iron, potassium, zinc, and selenium.

By law, to be called peanut butter in the United States it must contain at least 90% peanuts. Those concerned with health may want to look for brands that use fewer sugars or other ingredients for the remaining 10%.

The PB&J or peanut butter and jelly variation is perhaps the most common combination, although I think it only fair to once again mention the butter and peanut butter version that has been my personal (if less healthy) mainstay.

Many like to drizzle honey on theirs, and more than a few will add dill pickles, and bananas, as well as that other American favorite, bacon. Many of these variations gained wider acceptance after it became widely known that Elvis Presley had a favorite.

he gave us his personal favorite version of the peanut butter sandwich, which involved two slices of bread, one covered in peanut butter, drizzled with honey, the other with mashed banana. This was then combined into a sandwich with bacon added in between and then fried in either butter or bacon fat.

Many other peanut butter sandwich variations exist.

One I would like to try but haven’t so far and one that I think could be a winner would be a peanut butter and Hershey bar sandwich ala a cross between smores and Reese's peanut butter cups.

While the peanut butter sandwich may not be the fanciest, it is common and very American and a true sandwich of the common man, woman, and child and as such deserves recognition as the Great American Sandwich.

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